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Gambling It All on Government Spending: The Fragility of “Order” in the UAE

  • By Shezanne Cassim
  • 01 Dec, 2015

In his recent op-ed “Cabs, Camels, or ISIS,” Thomas Friedman argues that the UAE is one of a few countries in the region that have created “islands of decency” and lists the UAE as a place where there is “decent order.”

In his recent op-ed “ Cabs, Camels, or ISIS ,” Thomas Friedman argues that the UAE is one of a few countries in the region that have created “islands of decency” and lists the UAE as a place where there is “decent order.” 

Friedman makes two errors: the first is in assuming that the “order” currently enjoyed in the UAE is sustainable; the second is in suggesting that the “order” is the product of decency. The “order” that Friedman cites is not the product of sound policy, strength of the country’s institutions, or the result of “decency” on the part of the UAE government. Instead, it hinges on one thing alone: lavish government spending. 

There is order only because the government spends inordinate amounts of money obtained from oil revenues and foreign debt to maintain an artificially high level of employment and an otherwise untenable income tax-free society to keep discontentment at bay. This order will begin to evaporate if the recent collapse in oil prices causes the government to run out of money and compels the country to rely on market forces to maintain jobs while turning to taxation to generate government revenue.

In such a situation, the so-far unquantified costs to the economy currently imposed by dysfunctional institutions—such as the justice system—and the resulting doubts raised as to the UAE’s “decency” will be brought to the fore. 

Previously, for example, hoteliers in the UAE could shrug off potential tourists being put off visiting the UAE by cases such as  my own  and those of the Norwegian interior designer who was  imprisoned for having sex outside marriage after being raped  and the Australian graphic artist  jailed for posting a photograph of a badly-parked car on Facebook  because the growth bubble caused by government spending obscured the lost business. 

Now, however, with the UAE requiring a greater number of tourists to cover falling oil revenue,  declining tourist arrivals from key markets such as Russia , the progressive difficulty in securing incremental tourist growth, and  a massive supply of new hotels set to enter the local market , hoteliers facing difficulty meeting revenue targets can no longer ignore the role the UAE justice system continues to play in generating negative press and scaring away potential tourists. 

If the UAE is a business, then poorly trained police, prosecutors and judges who fail to carry out their duties responsibly represent bad employees that repel potential customers, while a justice system that is too unsophisticated and clumsily implemented to protect rape victims or guarantee basic fair-trial rights represents a poorly-performing division that places the well-being of the entire enterprise in jeopardy.

Leaving the country’s economic and political stability entirely dependent on the government’s ability to spend lavishly through oil revenue and foreign debt constitutes a very risky gamble. As the UAE’s development to date merely constitutes a shaky bet on its future, it is too early to conclude, as Friedman does, that it is a model of anything, let alone an ideal for the region to emulate. The roulette wheel is still spinning.

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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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