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A Dearth of Politics in Booming Dubai
Her first case as an activist was an incident of domestic violence she followed in 1991. Since then, she has taken on more of those cases, as well as of children working as camel jockeys, domestic servants mistreated by their employers and women forced into prostitution.
In 2001, she set up Dubai's only shelter, the City of Hope, a two-story villa where two dozen women are staying. As part of her work, she said she has had to run a gantlet of harassment from lower-level police to angry husbands. A criminal case was filed against her -- politically motivated, in her view -- and she counts death threats among her workplace hazards. Years later, she still awaits recognition from the government that would bestow legitimacy in her endless tussles with the legal system.
"You run around like the Tasmanian devil and try to have a very big smile," Musabih said, her face framed in a brown veil.
But she added, with a slight edge to her voice, "I'm not an outsider pointing a finger. I'm an insider."
The challenges are many: She is one of the very few activists not only in Dubai, but also in the six other sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, the vast influx of migrant workers is testing a court system never equipped for a city with more than 170 nationalities; workers complain about unpaid salaries, dangerous conditions and an ever-present threat to deport them if they protest. One especially intricate case Musabih has taken: a Pakistani woman entangled in a custody fight who faced everything from a travel ban to a passport stolen by a vindictive husband.
"They're new at this," she said of the government. "There's a good intention, but a lack of experience."
Her assistant, Seher Mir, 27, was blunter. "There's absolutely no civil society here. There are no [nongovernmental organizations] here, people don't understand what human rights are. Human rights, women's rights, when you mention it to people, they say it's not my problem."
City in Transition
In recent years, Dubai has attracted attention for its ambition. It has built or is building the tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping mall and the biggest artificial island. "Once again history is created," reads a billboard promoting the Dubai World Trade Center. There is little that might be called traditionally Arab in its commercialized ambience or cityscape of manicured roundabouts and 14-lane avenues lined with mimosa trees and purple periwinkles, save the street names: Sheikh Zayed Road, or Khalid Bin Walid Street.
Divisions lurk in the background: between expatriates, for instance, and Emiratis, and between Emiratis who trace their origins to the Arabian Peninsula or Iran. But Dubai lacks the poverty of Egypt, the sectarianism of Iraq or Lebanon or the divisions of Jordan, a country still unreconciled with its Palestinian majority. Dubai feels transient, enticing many of its residents with the promise of money or a climate more socially liberal than in neighboring countries.
"Things are not deeply or well established because of the mood of transition. People come and make money and go," said Suleiman Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabia in Dubai. "They are interested in either the sun or business."
Added Yassar Jarrar, executive dean of the Dubai School of Government: "You would struggle to start a political movement here."
But that sense of depoliticized space conceals a simmering backlash in Dubai among Emiratis who are a tiny minority in their own city and who are often bewildered by the pace of change in a country that, within some of their lifetimes, once relied on pearl diving and fishing. Like Musabih, who tries to instill a legal culture of human rights in an unaccustomed court system, some Emirati activists such as Roken are trying to understand how to safeguard their identities from the encroachment of a globalized culture.