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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 21 Oct, 2017

Reports of travelers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make news. Because the UAE has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a modern business and tourist destination, this continuous news drip makes local officials and lawyers defensive. Instead of fixing the problem, they have decided to explain that this isn’t the UAE’s fault. In at least one recent news  article  published by state-controlled media, officials have claimed that the real problem is that travelers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.

But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travelers who don’t have a handbook of UAE laws. The problem is that, first, the UAE’s laws are unclear and unpredictably enforced and, second, people can be detained without warning for some harmless act and then be denied the right to defend themselves.

The case of Jamie Harron illustrates this point to a farcical degree. While on a two-day stopover in Dubai this July, Harron, 27, from Scotland, visited a bar. According to Harron, he touched a man’s hip while preventing a drink from spilling. That man took offense and called the police. Harron was detained and charged with drinking alcohol and “public indecency” solely on the basis of the man’s complaint. Harron, who was granted bail after five days in jail, has lost his job and has racked up over £30,000 ($40,000) in legal bills. The judge handed him a  30-day jail sentence  for the charge of drinking alcohol. He’s now waiting for a judgment on the “public indecency” charge on October 22.

Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have mattered if Harron knew the law because the UAE's alcohol laws are not consistently enforced. Though Dubai markets itself as a great place to drink, and thousands of tourists do so in the city’s many bars,  it’s illegal for tourists to consume alcohol . The catcher is that the law is only enforced some of the time, and there’s no telling when or who will be targeted.

Knowing the law wouldn’t have helped Harron avoid a charge of “public indecency” for touching the man’s hip, either. The vagueness of UAE laws means that anyone can find any action “offensive” and have you detained just by complaining to the police. Recently, individuals have been prosecuted for a  handshake , posting a picture of a fox on Facebook, or taking  pictures of a local racetrack  or even just taking  pictures of the sunset . In the UAE, someone could find the way you walk, the way you breathe, or the way you laugh “offensive” and have you locked up with just his word against yours.

Once detained, you will be unable defend yourself because there’s no due process. Police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence against you, and you can be denied access to an attorney (who can’t do much to help you anyway) while judges go along with it all.

Once you’ve been locked up, you then also fall victim to the chaos of UAE courts. Judges fail to show up for work, so after spending a whole day sitting in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear, your case will be postponed again and again over a period of months while you languish in a cell. Jamie Harron was lucky enough to get bail, but his conviction for drinking alcohol was made “in absentia” because it didn’t occur to any court official to inform him of the date of his trial.

That the spate of detentions is due to arbitrary enforcement of the law and not ignorance becomes very clear when you take into account the fact that people with connections to influential officials like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba  can flout the country’s laws with impunity  while ordinary guys like Jamie Harron get hit hard. Until the UAE has a justice system that is predictable, accountable, and transparent, “knowing the law” will not save you from the nightmare of being thrown in jail for any reason or no reason at all.

By Shezanne Cassim 10 Oct, 2017

Dubai cops have locked up a tourist for drinking at a bar.

Jamie Harron, a 27-year-old British tourist is facing a three-year jail sentence in Dubai after allegedly putting his hand out in a bar  to stop himself spilling his drink  and touching a man’s hip. That man called the police.

Harron’s case is yet another example of how vulnerable tourists are to being arbitrarily detained in the UAE, where merely an accusation is enough to have someone jailed. Harron was charged with drinking alcohol even though he was at a bar that is permitted by the government to sell alcohol to patrons, including tourists. The Dubai government portrays the city as a modern and liberal tourist haven, but Harron’s case shows how tourists and residents are at constant risk just for merely drinking at the very hotels and other establishments the government promotes.

Harron is now facing charges of “drinking alcohol” and “public indecency.” Harron was in a jail for five days before being released on bail, but has since been trapped in the UAE for three months. He has lost his job and racked up over £30,000 (approximately $39,000) in legal fees and expenses.

Harron was expected to show up for a court hearing last Sunday, but the court moved the hearing date without informing him. Harron has now reportedly been sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for failing to show up.

UAE court proceedings are a shambles. There’s no due process, so anyone who doesn’t like your face can get you detained just by complaining to the police. Once they’re locked up, prisoners aren’t informed that they’re due in court until the morning of the hearing, judges don’t show up for work and even court clerks are completely unaware of the judge’s whereabouts or which cases are to be tried on that day. Prisoners are often not brought to their hearings by the police. It is not surprising that Harron has become a victim of the Dubai justice system’s own mismanagement.

Until the UAE brings its justice system into the modern era, visitors and residents remain at constant risk.

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