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For A True Knowledge Economy, The UAE Needs Free Speech

  • By Shezanne Cassim
  • 06 Jan, 2016

Establishing a genuine culture of innovation takes more than just issuing a top-down decree and constructing more office buildings; it requires the facilitation of the free exchange of ideas, the ability to take risks, ask questions, and propose new ideas without fear of detention and prosecution.

In 2014, the Dubai government announced a  Dubai Innovation Strategy  based on the rationale that “ For Dubai’s socio-economic growth to be sustainable it needs to lead the way in innovation ” and laid out plans to invest  4.5 billion dirhams (US$1.2 billion) to make the emirate a hub for innovation in the region .

Now that the UAE can no longer look to oil revenue to finance its future , encouraging the country to foster an innovation-based knowledge economy is the right approach. The UAE’s residents certainly have the ability to achieve it. But without a commitment to free speech, the Dubai Innovation Strategy looks more like yet another plan to sell real estate by dressing up a new government-built office park as a free zone than a sincere effort to encourage the substantive innovation the country needs.

Establishing a genuine culture of innovation takes more than just issuing a top-down decree and constructing more office buildings; it requires the facilitation of the free exchange of ideas, the ability to take risks, ask questions, and propose new ideas without fear of detention and prosecution. Without guaranteed free speech, the UAE is, effectively, setting a ceiling for itself, dooming its economy to remain based around imported franchises, hyperbolic real-estate sales, and the aping of innovations conceived abroad.

It is telling that the biggest symbols of the UAE’s development over the past four decades have been the product of purchased foreign expertise rather than a showcase of talent and knowhow cultivated at home. Dubai’s most iconic skyscrapers, for example, were designed by  Chicago  and  British  firms rather than architects trained in Dubai; the Palm Jumeirah artificial-island archipelago depended on  American planning  and  European engineering ; Emirates Airline’s growth was driven by executives such as Maurice Flanagan and Tim Clark who were recruited from abroad; and  Abu Dhabi’s upcoming Louvre and Guggenheim museums stand on their foreign branding rather than on the strength of the emirate's own arts community . This has to change if the country is to move forward.

Using oil revenue to buy progress and status is a finite strategy that can work only as long as oil revenue is significant. As the 2009 crisis showed, real estate cannot be counted on to replace oil as the major source of national wealth. As a result, without a genuine, innovation-based knowledge economy to replace both oil revenues and the imported expertise those revenues have bought, the UAE will be left high and dry. And there can be no real knowledge economy without free speech.

Instead of spending 4.5 billion dirhams on more office buildings, the Dubai government would do better to put that money toward the endowment of a true research university with independent governance and  academic freedom  to serve as an incubator of the home-grown innovation that the UAE needs.  It’s no accident that dominant global innovation hubs like Silicon Valley have grown around universities that enjoy the kind of academic freedom and intellectual diversity to which the UAE has been averse . That might entail the consideration of ideas with which the government might not be happy, but the UAE has no choice: it’s a matter of the country’s economic survival.

With oil revenues decreasing, it is essential that the UAE builds its economy on what it can create instead of on what it can buy. The UAE has a dynamic, capable pool of talent. The government should empower that talent by ensuring a climate in which it can thrive, not by trying to sell it office space.

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By Shezanne Cassim 06 Dec, 2017

Heading to the 2017 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF)? I mean why not, right? DIFF does a great job of celebrating art and expression.

All right, I’m kidding. The government-run DIFF only pretends to do that. DIFF is more an attempt to launder Dubai’s image than a true film festival aimed at encouraging creative expression.

So what’s really going on away from the stage and cinema lights? Here are 10 things to know about free expression in Dubai.

1: Local filmmakers  must get their scripts approved by the government .
Sadly, a lot of interesting things happen in Dubai that are not made into films because Big Brother will say "No." The restrictions aren’t only limited to film— books  are subject to censorship too.

2: Censorship is rife.
Nudity and other things that are “harmful to national security ” are censored out of movies playing in local theaters, but the state-sanctioned DIFF conveniently  screens uncensored films . Meanwhile, in 2012, Dubai residents were left fuming that they couldn’t watch  Game of Thrones .

3: Posting photographs of people without their consent is a  criminal offense .
How great would it be to take a picture of you at DIFF and post it on Instagram? Sounds harmless enough, but all it takes is one person in the crowd to report your actions, and off to jail you go. Extra time in the slammer if you’ve had any alcohol.

4: There is no freedom of the press in the UAE.
Journalists are  detained , interrogated, blindfolded, forced to give up their equipment, and expelled from the country for reporting on things the government doesn’t want you to see. But some of them are first given the opportunity to turn snitch against their fellow journos for “ Some fucking good money .”

5: If you post anything online about something the government doesn’t want you to see—like heavy  rain , one of Dubai’s skyscraper fires, or car accidents—you could be fined and jailed indefinitely.
That’s right, the sun always shines in Dubai.

6: It is illegal to  express negative opinions  of anybody or anything.
Didn’t like the film you watched? Keep your opinions to yourself or you could find yourself  fined .

7: Watch what you tweet.
You can be jailed for “defamatory”  tweets  (even if you were in jail at the time and had no internet access!). And if you think using other messaging apps is safe, think again— sending a middle-finger emoji on Whatsapp  can land you in jail too.

8: Dubai’s government doesn’t limit its promotional tools to just film festivals.
Earlier this year, the Dubai government  launched the Dubai font  to much international fanfare, urging social media users to promote the font by using the hashtag #Expressyou. Buried in the terms and conditions was a warning that the font could not be used in any manner that goes against UAE “ public morals ” and that users “irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai.” Court!? For using a font?

9: Posting video of a government official assaulting a man in the street is a serious offense.
If civic responsibility is your thing and you’ve filmed a government official committing a violent assault on the street and now want to post the video on YouTube to expose the injustice, watch out! It’s illegal and  you will face more serious penalties  than the person committing the assault!

10: You can’t predict what can get you in trouble.
Just ask the guy who found himself in court facing a year in jail and a $2772 fine for posting a  picture of a fox  (that’s right, the animal) on Facebook. The man’s friends took offense, called the cops, and—with UAE laws being as vague as they are—he was up against a “defamation” charge.

Enjoy DIFF, but be aware that, in Dubai, expressing yourself can get you thrown into a very uncomfortable prison where there are definitely no movie nights.

By Shezanne Cassim 22 Nov, 2017

Planning a trip to Dubai? Looking forward to hitting up some of Dubai’s hip bars and enjoying a few drinks while you’re there? Before you go, you should know that Dubai’s been in the news lately because of its tendency to arbitrarily throw people in jail for things like drinking alcohol.

Local officials maintain that the problem is that tourists are ignorant of the law. But the truth is that Dubai’s antiquated shambles of a justice system, like a bad case of tile grout, needs serious professional cleaning. Dubai’s laws are vague, confusing, and arbitrarily enforced.*

So, if getting jailed for a normal activity—like drinking at a bar in Dubai—isn’t really your thing, there are a few things you should know about the law to avoid from becoming, shall we say, “unavoidably detained.”

Here are 10 things to know about drinking in Dubai:


1: You may not drink or possess alcohol in Dubai  without an alcohol license .
Where do you get one? See Point 2.

2: Visitors are  not eligible  for an alcohol license.
Read Point 1 again and scratch your head.

3: Drinking alcohol without a license is a jailable offense.
How much jail time are we talking about? A local newspaper says  six months , but a Chief Justice says  five years . Is the Chief Justice just having a bad day? Do Dubai justice-system officials simply make things up as they go along? Are those things mutually exclusive? You would be wise to ponder.

4: You are not allowed to have  any  alcohol in your body when in public.
When you’ve had some bubbly on the plane and land at the airport with alcohol in your system, welcome to Dubai! You’ve just committed your first jailable offense.

5: When you buy alcohol at the airport duty free, you’ve just committed your second jailable offense.
And you haven’t even left the airport yet! Seriously, stop.

6: If you’re a tourist, it’s illegal to drink at a bar .
Even if you’re at a hotel bar and everyone around you is a fellow tourist knocking back shot after shot, it’s not legal for you to drink (and everyone else is breaking the law too). Sure, no-one’s getting handcuffed and thrown into the back seat of a cop car right now, but are you willing to bet your freedom, your job, or your life on the odds that your luck will hold?

7: Thinking about drinking while being Muslim? Sorry,  that’s Illegal .
No license for you!

8: Thinking about attending a house party? Then you’d better hope the neighbors don’t report the party.
If they do, be prepared to spend months in an overcrowded, maggot-infested jail sleeping on a sweat, blood, and pus-stained mattress while prosecutors “investigate.”

9: A mere accusation of wrongdoing is enough to draw police attention.
If that random guy you touched to avoid spilling your drink accuses you of sexual assault and  calls the cops  and you have alcohol in your system, you can now look forward to going to jail for sexual assault and drinking illegally!

10: Even Dubai’s judges admit  the alcohol license and laws are confusing .
Would you trust a heart surgeon who couldn’t tell the difference between your heart and your rectum? Trusting a judge in Dubai poses a similar conundrum.

If you’re the adventurous type, have fun while you’re in Dubai. But not too much fun...unless you’re prepared to have your weekend trip turned into an unknowably long tour of Dubai’s awful jail cells.

*Author’s note: As much as those officials will blame you for not knowing the law, I was raised in Dubai and even I can’t say for sure what the law on drinking actually is. The relevant law isn’t officially published anywhere that mere mortals can access (just try doing a web search for it—just try). The best I can do is tell you what the state-controlled local media says is the law.
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