Zack Shahin,_ an American, was arrested in Dubai in 2008 and held in isolationfor months on end. Shahin still remains injail on what appear to be spurious charges,with no trial date in sight. All this ishappening in the United Arab Emirates(UAE), which purport to be the forwardlookingshowcase of Arab capacity for liberalismand entrepreneurial flair.
Before the financial crisis the UAE attractedthousands of Western investors andexperts. Dubai in particular started growinginto a glittering metropolis of highrisetowers, expensive hotels, and top-tiershops. It became Arabia’s Las Vegas (minusthe gambling and showgirls), a financialDisneyland without the fun. In early2008, however, the property bubble burst,and the ruling family needed scapegoats.In the ensuing global downturn Dubai wasthreatened with financial collapse. Disagreementsover foreign-worker labor lawsand human rights caused the terminationof free-trade negotiations with the UnitedStates.
For domestic consumption, those sameexpatriates who built Dubai’s economy andhelped enrich its rulers were now presentedas predatory speculators to be blamedfor the downturn. Shahin, a former topexecutive of Devaar Development, was aniconic victim of the new trend. Held in isolationfor 13 months and denied U.S. consularassistance—in violation of internationaltreaties to which the Emirates are aparty—in April 2009 he was finally chargedwith embezzlement. There is no indicationwhen he will be tried, however. Hesays that, while incommunicado, he wastortured and forced to sign papers in Arabicthat he did not understand.
After investigating one misdemeanorcharge against Shahin for the past threeyears, the presiding judge belatedly concludedthat he may not have jurisdictionover the case and sent it back to the publicprosecutor. This maneuver will nowenable the prosecutor to apply a new lawthat did not exist at the time of the arrest,under which Shahin can be designated a“public official” and (if ever tried and convicted)face a sentence of up to 20 years.
Shahin has twice been “released” on bail,and then immediately rearrested. Dozensof other non-American foreigners havebeen treated in a similar vein. Touristshave sometimes fared far worse, such asBritish visitor Lee Bradley Brown, beatento death in jail following his arrest for allegedlyusing abusive language.
The U.S. government has sent at leastthree formal diplomatic notes expressingconcerns about Shahin’s treatment, but theyremain unanswered. His case was raisedwith UAE officials by Secretary of StateHillary Clinton during her visit last Januaryand by other American diplomats, butall have been rebuffed. Letters to the UAEambassador in Washington from both Ohiosenators and from former Rep. DeborahPryce have never been answered.
The State Department has yet to makea public statement about Shahin’s predicament,however. The U.S. government hastaken a far keener interest in the legal problemsof two foreigners—Mikhail Khodorkovskyin Russia and Liu Xiaobo in China—than in the ongoing predicament ofa U.S. citizen.
In these uncertain times for the region,the Emirates are vulnerable. Looking at thetension in neighboring Bahrain, its rulersare understandably uneasy. They, too, area minority in their own country—a merefifth of the population—and they, too, suspectthe impermanence of their wealth andpower. Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoums inparticular provide vivid evidence of Carnegie’sdictum that “there is no class sopitiably wretched as that which possessesmoney and nothing else.” They controlan economically weakened and politicallyfragile Middle Eastern autocracy. TheEmirates need robust encouragement fromWashington to clean up their legal act andto stop victimizing foreigners in general,and Americans like Shahin in particular,through corrupt judicial processes.