In October, the International Bar Association held its annual meeting in Dubai. But it almost didn’t happen. Here is my story for the ABA Journal, including an interview with IBA leader Mark Ellis, who recounted how they managed to assuage security officials’ concern and prevent a last-minute herding of the group’s 5,000 attorneys to an alternate convention location.
Daunting Dubai: Security Officials Nearly Force Cancellation of IBA Annual Meeting
By Angela Shah
Two years ago, the International Bar Association agreed to convene its 2011 annual gathering in Dubai, a key vote of confidence for the Persian Gulf city-state, even as its economy was teetering toward insolvency.
But the meeting, which took place in October and usually draws 5,000 lawyers from across the globe, was nearly canceled five weeks before its start after Dubai security officials objected to the titles of seven panel discussions that they said could threaten political stability in the United Arab Emirates and the broader Gulf region.
Mark Ellis, president of the London-based IBA, says he had to make an emergency trip to Dubai to address the concerns of local security officials, who said the conference discussions could be “a possible catalyst for individuals to act against the government.”
According to Ellis, security officials in Dubai objected to panel discussions on topics including the death penalty, migrant workers and human rights. Ultimately, seven sessions were renamed to satisfy Emirati authorities, and the conference went ahead as planned. Security officials in Dubai could not be reached for comment.
Rather than ‘death penalty,’ we used ‘capital punishment,’ ” Ellis says. “Rather than ‘extraterritorial jurisdiction,’ we used ‘universal jurisdiction.’ ”
But a session devoted to “women and Islam” did not survive. After it was renamed “Women and the Law,” IBA officials deemed it too generic to attract much attendance and scrapped it.
Ellis stresses that no censorship took place, only cosmetic changes regarding the names of the panels. He says his organization created “red lines” that it wouldn’t cross.
“We still had the same discussions that we would’ve had under the old names,” Ellis says. “If the security branch had insisted that we cancel any of these sessions or insisted on preventing any speaker from participating in the conference or if they had attempted to influence the content of any of these sessions, we would have canceled the conference.”
The IBA had even identified Barcelona as a likely backup site, he adds.
The conflict highlights the difficult balance that Dubai, which has positioned itself as a global trade hub on par with London or Hong Kong, must keep since it remains a deeply conservative society governed by Shariah. The emirate, one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, is governed by an autocratic sheikh and dissent is not tolerated. Authorities arrested five Emirati bloggers in April 2011 for posts that allegedly endangered national security. The men were on trial in Abu Dhabi this past November.
Ellis attributes the IBA’s conflict with Dubai security authorities to heightened sensitivities related to the Arab Spring.
The United Arab Emirates has not seen the sort of protests that have occurred in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain, but leaders are vigilant. “What’s disappointing for me more than anything else is that Dubai presented themselves as a much more open culture and society, a gateway to the Middle East,” Ellis says. “The conference was a wonderful opportunity for the U.A.E. and Dubai to play a constructive role [in showing] what was happening in the region. Instead, it was just the opposite.”