A Dearth of Politics in Booming Dubai

Mohammed al-Roken, a leading human rights activist in Dubai, has been arrested twice, forced out of his job as a professor and barred from traveling abroad.
Mohammed al-Roken, a leading human rights activist in Dubai, has been arrested twice, forced out of his job as a professor and barred from traveling abroad. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Mohammed al-Roken is perhaps the most prominent human rights activist in Dubai. That distinction has cost him. He was arrested twice. The government forced him out of his job as a professor, canceled his public lectures and banned him from writing in newspapers. Nine months ago, his passport was seized, barring him from traveling abroad.

That's not the tough part, the lawyer said. Far more difficult is the loneliness that comes with political work in a brashly exuberant city-state that prides itself on having no politics. "An activist might be praised, might be congratulated for his work, might be clandestinely supported, but there will be no uproar if something happens to him," Roken said.

Roken, a tall, bearded Emirati whose few softly spoken words belie a steely determination, is trying to create a political movement in the world's biggest boomtown where virtually everything -- from the import of cheap, often mistreated labor to the prevalence of English -- is dictated by the logic of capital. Yet on the margins of Dubai's culture of superlatives, with double-digit growth the norm and unbridled optimism a mantra, politics are timidly, fitfully but gradually coalescing in a place where notions of borders, citizenship and rights have become murkier.

"This is an apolitical city, but it will probably not stay that way for too long," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. He added: "Politics brings out the good and the bad."

In a region beset by war and crises, Dubai sits like an oasis of confidence along the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. If Cairo was the Arab world's ideological capital in the 1950s and '60s, and Beirut its cultural capital until the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, then Dubai is now its economic capital, drawing legions of the Arab world's best and brightest from the malaise of their own countries. It has posted growth higher than China and India, with per capita income greater than Singapore. It has reaped the windfall of the region's oil wealth, despite having scant reserves of its own. Its leaders, a modernized tribal dynasty, style themselves as corporate executives running Dubai Inc.

"This is the nature of things here, the nature of the beast. Dubai has a focus. Unlike all other cities, it has a focus and it's clear, perhaps clearer than it's ever been: economics, stay the course, our business is business, our business is growth," Abdulla said.

But with that growth have come pressing issues that no other Arab locale has had to confront so quickly. Its own citizens have become a tiny minority in a city where English, not Arabic, is the lingua franca. In the heart of one of the world's most socially conservative regions, prostitution and alcohol are rife.

Tens of thousands of newcomers arrive in the city each month, joining hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, many of whom toil with few rights and at little more than subsistence wages. Their cause has become one rallying point.

'No Civil Society Here'

"Get out of the house," Sharla Musabih, a 46-year-old activist, pleaded into her cellphone on a recent day. On the other end was a Filipina married to an abusive Egyptian man, Musabih said. "Go to the hospital, then come to me."

"This is every day," Musabih said after hanging up the phone. "Every day."

In a city of spectacles, Musabih stands out, an occasionally lonely activist trying to forge protections and safeguards for migrants. Born in Bainbridge Island, Wash., she has lived here for 24 years with her Emirati husband and six children. She has an exuberant touch: Her hands are in perpetual motion, and the woman on the other end of the phone is "Sweetie." "Excuse me, honey," she beckons to a waitress, grabbing her hand in both of hers. "I'm dying for a latte."


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