Dubai. The name stands for wealth, opportunities and shiny facades. But how does the oil-rich gulf country actually run and think? Eight young men just got jailed for up to one year for posting a parody internet in the internet. The sharia law and strict judges have no sense of humour when it comes to issues of “national security”.
The name and place Dubai stands for extravagancy, glamour and seemingly endless opportunities for investors and tourists alike. Within the last decade the highest building of the planet was built, the Burj Khalifa reaching over 800 meters into the sky, the streets are inhabited by Porsches and other luxury cars and for New Years Dubai just hosted the largest fireworks, granting an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. While Europe struggles with unemployment and an economic crisis, the rise of the Gulf Emirate seems unbroken.
But what is behind the shiny facade of attracting foreign investment, world events and tourists?
Freedom House has rated the internet, press and expression in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from which Dubai forms one emirate, as “not free”. Strict censorship, hard state control and Sharia law are a daily reality. The dire situation was exemplified in 2013 when eight young men posted a parody video on YouTube about the invented Al Satwa Gang of Dubai’s Arab suburb. In the clip they joked about the “gangsters” of the Al Satwa neighbourhood. In a training session the young men explored the local self-defence methods with two of the defendants learning from an Arab resident how to throw the Emirati shoes n’aal at targets and how to use the black rope of the headscarf as a whip. This “training” was intended as a joke about the ridiculous tough words in the safe and calm environment. Dubai has one of the world’s lowest crime rates. This is probably because the local population benefits largely from state subsidies and foreigners have to leave the country if accused of a crime.
However the judges did not laugh about the clip.
Half a year after posting the video the young men were detained by the police. Six of the suspects, British, American, Canadian and Indian nationals, were sentenced to one-year in prison and a 10,000 Dirhams (about 2000 euros) fine. Two of the three Emirati brothers were found guilty of being involved and now face eight months in jail besides a 5,000 Dirhams fine.
The authorities accused the young adults that the published video is “liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order.” This is part of a newly introduced cyber crime law in the UAE. The charges also included a “defaming of the UAE’s image abroad”.
One of the Americans, Shezanne Cassim, was arrested and interrogated in Dubai before being transported to a maximum security prison in Abu Dhabi. His family says it was five months before he was notified of the charges against him. The 29-year old Cassim later stated: “It was just for fun. We just wanted to make a funny sketch comedy in our spare time.” Foreign criticism about the arbitrary detention, violation of a human right and harsh punishment remained quasi absent. The U.S. embassy refused any statement on the case, probably enviously guarding the good relationship with the oil-rich UAE.
Despite the welcoming of millions of Western tourists each year and attracting world-scale events like the Expo in 2020 the UAE obviously has not adopted a more lenient approach to freedom of expression. Behind every shiny front there can hide a darker core.
The video “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs” is still in the net and the remarks of the vivid commentary box range from “Americans think they can do everything.Good job Dubai.” to “this is a shame”.
Personally, I think the clip is not even funny.