Rising out of the desert is the improbable city of Dubai, which may soon feature the first-ever hyperloop—an underground bullet train that travels at 745mph—in addition to a collection of skyscrapers, a brand new canal, a “miracle garden,” and other creative feats of engineering and technology. Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has driven Dubai’s development as a global city as part of his ambitious UAE Vision 2021, a multidimensional plan to turn the UAE into one of the “best countries in the world.” Dubai’s accomplishments have certainly been impressive: the city boasts a robust and diversified economy, a technology hub, a massive healthcare complex, and the coveted title of “Host” for the 2020 World Expo. UAE’s less-than-stellar human rights record, however, threatens to derail Dubai’s growth on the world stage. Actions such as forced disappearances and torture tend to be seen as threats to the liberal world order espoused by the international community Dubai strives to be a part of, making it challenging for them to truly become a global city.
Human rights are not usually the first thing to come to mind when discussing Dubai. The towering Burj Khalifa, supercar police force, indoor ski resort, and “7 star” hotel all tend to top the list, while reports of censorship, torture, and harsh anti-LGBT laws are less common. The wealth and flashiness of the city effectively draws a veil over the darker aspects, shielding it from international public scrutiny (for the most part, anyway). For a city with such global aspirations, though, having such skeletons in the closet can be costly. The more international attention Dubai draws in from all types of audiences through events like “Design Week,” fashion week, ”Social Media Week,” golf tournaments, and motor shows, the more opportunities there are for outsiders to notice—and protest against—the dubious human rights record.
Already, outsiders do appear to be paying more attention. At the end of October, a new UK parliamentary group convened to examine human rights violations in the Gulf states, following an Amnesty International seminar on political activism in the region. And the UAE government does seem to be making some efforts to implement change: the 2016 “Art Dubai” fair included a piece critiquing the abysmal migrant labor conditions (a surprising display, considering all art at the event must be approved by the royal family) and the Emirates Association for Human Rights will petition the United Nations (UN) to name 2017 the ”year of tolerance.” Additionally, the UAE has requested more open dialogue with the UN Human Rights Council, though it is unclear if this will amount to anything.
The question becomes, then, how to encourage the government to continue making real progress towards improving the human rights situation. Sanctions or embargoes, traditional weapons used against countries such as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea for human rights violations—and other issues—that stifle the flow of tourists, goods, and services that drive the city’s economy, will do little to encourage the government to improve. Dubai cannot thrive in isolation, no city or country can in our globalized age—despite what some blustery politicians might say. Harsh punishments that cut Dubai off from the world will only encourage the city—and the country—to collapse inward, and to stop striving to be a global hub of growth, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The best path forward is to encourage Dubai’s transformation and vision, while using diplomatic channels to remind the government that human rights abuses, censorship, and corruption do not go unnoticed when a city is part of the global community.
If sanctions and embargos are off the table, then what options can be considered? One option would be to go through the UN, using the weight of the organization to encourage the UAE to accept more human rights treaties and accords. However, given that many of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signatories, such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, have not followed through with their promises, and that the UN lacks a mechanism to effectively enforce these commitments, this may not lead to much in the way of actual change. Furthermore, the UAE recently joined a coalition of African and Middle Eastern states protesting a recent UN Human Rights Commission decision, suggesting the government would have few qualms about standing up to the UN if they do not agree with a particular policy or recommendation.
Another option would be to raise global awareness of the human rights situation in Dubai, and refuse to allow the city to use flashy buildings and shiny cars as a shield. Public scrutiny of the UAE’s policies through news reports, speaking engagements, and press releases could lead naturally to a reduction in the flow of tourists and businesses, which would, in turn, encourage Dubai to make changes—without forcibly closing their borders.