Dubai is a city on the rise. The decadent centrepiece of the United Arab Emirates, its towering skyline and rapid growth are symbolic of the ‘new’ Middle East, a metropolis to rival anything the rest of the world can offer. As of 2012, Dubai was the 22nd most expensive city in the world, and the most expensive within the Middle East. Get beneath the city’s extravagant façade, however, and you will find a disturbing underbelly that has produced some of the most disturbing miscarriages of justice in modern society.
In March, Norwegian tourist Marte Deborah Dalelv reported that she had been raped to Dubai police. In the city on a business trip, she had been out with colleagues and was sexually assaulted the night of March 6th. On learning this, the police confiscated her passport and money and charged her on counts of drinking alcohol, perjury, and extramarital sex. In the last few days, she was sentenced to 16 months in prison.
Dubai’s new world feel is a front for a culture built on old world legislature and law. Under law in the city, a rape cannot be recognised outside of two circumstances: if the rapist comes forward and confesses, or if the rape is witnessed by four adult Muslim men. The UAE government is still strongly influenced by religion in the region and women come very much second to men in the country, but even judged against other laws in Dubai these criteria appear staggeringly unfair. To punish a woman for being the victim of a violent sex crime seems almost medieval in its harshness.
This is far from being an isolated incident. Alicia Gali, an Australian woman working in a Dubai branch of the American hotel chain Starwood, was gang-raped by three of her colleagues in 2008 after they drugged her. She was sentenced to one year in jail, and was eventually pardoned after eight months. Only one of her rapists served a longer sentence than her, and his was only a month more. The number of similar cases involving local women that go unreported in the Western media doesn’t bear thinking about.
The city of Dubai appears to operate under a ‘behind closed doors’ mantra. Though the UAE constitution pledges to treat all races equally and fairly, foreign labourers often work in conditions described as inhumane and dangerous, often leading to fatalities. Prostitution is illegal in Dubai, but the authorities are willing to turn a blind eye to foreign women working out of nightclubs. Drinking is the most confusing grey area, as tourists swayed by the knowledge of Dubai’s expat drinking culture can still be hit with a ‘drinking without a license’ charge without warning, even if they are in one of the city’s many bars or hotels.
You wouldn’t have thought there were many places in the world where being raped could turn you into a criminal in the eyes of the legal system. In Dubai, that worrying hypothetical is a brutal reality.