Cultural Revolutions

Arabian Limbo

Zack Shahin, an American, was arrested in Dubai in 2008 and held in isolation for months on end.  Shahin still remains in jail on what appear to be spurious charges, with no trial date in sight.  All this is happening in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which purport to be the forward-looking showcase of Arab capacity for liberalism and entrepreneurial flair.

Before the current financial crisis the UAE attracted thousands of Western investors and experts.  Dubai in particular started growing into a glittering metropolis of high-rise towers, expensive hotels, and top-tier shops.  It became Arabia’s Las Vegas (minus the gambling and showgirls), a financial Disneyland without the fun.  In early 2008, however, the property bubble burst, and the ruling family needed scapegoats.  In the ensuing global downturn Dubai was threatened with financial collapse.  Disagreements over foreign-worker labor laws and human rights caused the termination of free-trade negotiations with the United States.

For domestic consumption, those same expatriates who built Dubai’s economy and helped enrich its rulers were now presented as predatory speculators to be blamed for the downturn.  Shahin, a former top executive of Devaar Development, was an iconic victim of the new trend.  Held in isolation for 13 months and denied U.S. consular assistance—in violation of international treaties to which the Emirates are...

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