Foreign Affairs

Persian Gulf: Full of Contradictions

Call it the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, either way the word “contradictions” fits it.  On its Arab shores, despite public declarations that the future of the Palestinians was of paramount importance, it was long rumored that, in private, leaders put the highest priority on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Logically, the Department of Defense would have standby plans for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but the possibility was always brushed aside by officials until Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, in an interview, acknowledged that the United States has such a plan. 

The eventuality seemed to get unexpected public support when the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Ataiba, said at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran”  His statement was quickly contradicted by his foreign ministry.  A spokesman declared it was “taken out of context.”

Then came the dump of the stolen U.S. diplomatic cables by Wikileaks.  They showed that such leaders as the King of Saudi Arabia, speaking privately, minced no words about thwarting Iran’s ambitions. 

In another contradiction, the leaked cables revealed that the Afghan Taliban and their allies obtain “significant funds” through UAE businesses and extort money from its large Pashtun community.

Domestically, in Dubai, one of the emirates, things have turned out not to be what they seemed. In the Nineties, Dubai set out to be seen as a cosmopolitan, liberal Arab society, welcoming investment and promising to become a major financial center–a Middle Eastern Singapore. American and European business men were drawn to the opportunities. A glittering city of high-rise office buildings and apartments sprang up. 

Then, beginning in 2008, when Dubai’s sovereign funding unit, Dubai World, showed signs of financial instability, the authorities looked about for scapegoats.  As the world economic downturn expanded, Dubai’s $80 billion debt threatened the emirate with financial collapse. It withdrew from free-trade negotiations with the U.S. over disagreements about its foreign worker labor laws and human rights. (Approximately 90 percent of Dubai’s population of one million, consists of foreigners.) While Dubai sought a bailout from the rest of the UAE, it engaged in highly autocratic behavior.  

There are constant reports of abuse of expatriates–the very people whose intellectual and monetary capital built the U.A.E.’s economy and line the ruling family’s pockets with more dirhams.  Dubai’s two-year long campaign against expat executives has resulted in the arrest of hundreds, according to a recent Bloomberg report.  In an apparent attempt to cover up its own fiscal mismanagement, Dubai may try some as “public officials,” which could lead to harsher sentences. Among those arrested is U.S. citizen Jack Shahin, former chief executive of Dubai-based Deyaar Realty. 

Shahin found himself in legal limbo in 2008, when he was seized and held incommunicado from his family, legal counsel, and–in a violation of international law–U.S. diplomatic representation.  For 13 months, Shahin’s legal status was uncertain. No charges were filed against him. According to media reports, Shahin was tortured during this initial detainment. His declining health has not been attended to properly since he was charged with embezzlement in April 2009.  Despite evidence supporting Shahin’s innocence, reports of state witness testimony being influenced by the Dubai prosecutor’s office, and Shahin’s plight being discussed diplomatically between the U.S. and U.A.E., his trial seems no closer. Proceedings are constantly subjected to 30-day continuances. 

Neither State Department official diplomatic representations for an expedited trial nor letters from Shahin’s U.S. Senators and Representative to the U.A.E. ambassador – the same diplomat who indicated support for a strike on Iran – have been addressed by U.A.E. authorities. And, in a case of “do as I say, not as I do,” former U.A.E. Finance Minister Mohammed bin Khalfin and other Emiratis have bought their way out of charges, while Shahin and fellow expat businessmen such as British citizens Ryan Cornelius, Arthur Fitzwilliams, and Charles Ridley rot in prison.

While there is justice on paper in Dubai, contradictorily there is none in reality, unless one is a native of the emirate and well connected.  Whether the UAE would press Dubai to release these expats in the wake of a Western attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is unclear. Meanwhile, Dubai’s actions make it clear that no level-headed Western investors should put their money there.


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