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Dubai: The Golden Mirage

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The ongoing ordeal of a U.S. businessman who has been rotting in a Dubai jail for more than two years, deprived of his civil rights, should serve as a warning to Americans and Westerners alike doing business with Dubai, a constituent monarchy of United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Shahin, a U.S. citizen, is just one of many foreigners who make up 80-95% of Dubai's 2.3 million residents. Until his arrest, Shahin was CEO of Deyaar Realty, once Dubai's second largest real estate developer, which, like Dubai's entire real-estate sector, was hit hard by the global economic recession.

Shahin was arrested without warrant or indictment in March 2008. Sources familiar with the case reported that he was held incommunicado for over two weeks, while his house and office were ransacked and his documents confiscated. He was deprived of food, water, sleep and access to a toilet for days. The brutality inflicted on Shahin caused his poor health to worsen, requiring him to undergo two major surgeries. After thirteen months he was charged with bribery, fraud and embezzlement

Shahin was forced to sign documents he did not understand, because of threats that his wife will be jailed and his children will be sent to a shelter. When finally "released" on bail, Shahin was promptly rearrested on newly trumped-up charges and still languishes in jail. Meanwhile, the Dubai government and its autocratic ruling family have ignored entreaties by the State Department, the U.S. Ambassador and members of Congress to discuss Shahin's plight. A letter from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to UAE's Ambassador asking him to intervene to ensure Shahin's health and safety while in prison remains unanswered nearly two years since it was delivered.

Shahin's Kafkaesque detention is not unusual in Dubai, where a growing number of foreigners are being subjected to the country's arcane Islamic legal codes and stripped of Western consideration for civil and human rights. The U.S. Department of State 2009 Human Rights Report for U.A.E., states: "while the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention... there were reports that the government held persons in official custody without charge or a preliminary judicial hearing...[and] There were also reports of prison guard brutality." Moreover, the report notes: "court decisions remained subject to review by the political leadership."

Other victimized foreigners are Canadians Karen and Daniel Andrews. The husband, Daniel, a senior executive at a multinational company, was lured to Dubai in 2005 by the promise of "paradise in the desert." They had a rude awaking when they lost everything. In a sobering account in The Independent, in April 2009, on "The Dark Side of Dubai," Karen noted, "The thing you have to understand about Dubai is -- nothing is what it seems. Nothing. This isn't a city, it's a con-job. They lure you in telling you it's one thing -- a modern kind of place -- but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."

These accounts are far from revealing the full array of substantive and procedural violations of due process and of basic decency Dubai has perpetrated on Shahin, the Andrews, and many other foreigners. Lured by the glitzy façade, Westerners have not been contemplating the Emirate's lack of transparency and its growing abuse of foreigners.

The number of foreign businessmen detained in Dubai is unknown, as the local authorities do not release such information. But media reports from Europe, the U.S., and other countries that supply the bankers, businessmen, engineers and others who labor to further Dubai's riches, reveal that such arrests have spiked since the Emirate's economic bubble burst in 2008. Foreigners should be especially wary, as Dubai's banking and economy are still on the decline, contrary to repeated assurances from local officials.

The UAE is now wallowing in a staggering debt of $109.3 billion. On June 3, Moody's downgraded Dubai's Central Bank foreign and local currency rating, "reflecting the weakening of the Bank's strength as a result of the ongoing credit issues surrounding the Dubai corporate sector," noting the decline "in earning capability" for the Bank and all its Dubai-based competitors.

Still, Dubai's Western trappings and its well-crafted façade of the golden city in the desert continue to lure foreigners. But like every Arabian Desert mirage, many wake up with a mouthful of sand, and their life in shambles.

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