Following my previous piece on Zulqarnain Haider, a number of those commenting on the article claimed that Dubai is a safe place. But is it really? In January of this year, top Hamas official Mahmood al Mabhouh was target-killed in Dubai’s al Bustan Rotana Hotel, allegedly by a hit squad working for Mossad. Target killings, terrorist explosions, armed robberies and other violence are all so common in Pakistan that many Pakistanis rate Dubai safer. However, the question they fail to ask is: for whom is it safe? Perhaps for those who put their heads down and get on with their business without questioning the ills of society. But is it safe for whistle-blowers?
Let’s begin with some basic questions. What kind of media freedoms exist in Dubai? Is justice independent of the whims of the ruling class? Does the law protect women, the poor, the weak or the downtrodden? Is labour allowed to form unions? Are political parties allowed to organise? Are the rich expected to pay taxes? Does the public discourse allow debate on whether the rich should pay taxes? How many human rights’ groups are functional in Dubai? How many NGOs operate in Dubai? Is the right to form an association recognised? Is it acceptable to speak of corruption in the higher echelons of society?
The answers to most, if not all, of these questions will be troubling. What would happen, then, to the persons who decided to dedicate themselves to correcting these glaring socio-political imbalances in Dubai? Most likely, it would result in a fate worse than Umar Cheema’s. To those enamoured by Dubai’s Roberto Cavalli-inspired clubs, indoor ski slopes and sky-high shopping malls juxtaposed against Armani abayas, Hermes hijabs and Louis Vuitton handbags, the repression may be too removed to notice. But for those concerned with justice and civil liberties, the veneer of safety is replaced by dangerous consequences.
The exploitation of labour from developing countries is common knowledge. Labour abuses and lack of payment, often likened to indentured servitude, mostly results in deportation rather than rectification upon reporting of the crimes to authorities. I wonder how safe Dubai is for the pipe-fitters who fell through a manhole and died due to lack of attention to safety details. Accidents can happen anywhere, but what recourse do the families of these workers have? Which Dubai-based group can they turn to for help? What would happen if fellow workers tried to unionise and demand higher health and safety standards? Would a Dubai court be willing to rule in favour of the workers and set a precedent that is fair to labour?
On New Year’s Eve 2010, a Pakistani-British girl was raped by a hotel employee in a ladies’ toilet at Dubai Marina’s luxurious Address Hotel. Upon reporting the incident to the police, she became the subject of ridicule and harassment. Instead of investigating the charge, the police jailed the victim and her fiance, who had accompanied her on holiday. Their passports were confiscated and, as they awaited trial, they were told that they could face six years in prison. Although the story went unreported in the Pakistani press, it made headlines in Britain.
The Pakistani press has reported with much zeal and vigour the unfortunate case of Aafia Siddiqui and her American tormentors. It is good to stand up for Pakistanis who have been wronged abroad. But why remain silent on the abuses Pakistanis face daily in Dubai, or the Gulf in general? Is the media playing a part in fooling our people into assuming a false lull of security when it comes to Dubai?
Published in The Express Tribune November 26th, 2010.