U.A.E. crackdown update

The RAND Corporation’s Abu Dhabi office has been shut down by U.A.E. authorities – the latest move by rulers to clamp down on what it believes is unacceptable speech. RAND has been in Abu Dhabi since 2010 and “facilitated evidence-based research and analysis by RAND experts in such areas as education, public safety and environmental health,” according to a Reuters story that quoted an email response from Jeffrey Hiday, director at RAND’s office for media relations.

The move follows the forced closure of Abu Dhabi outposts of Gallup, the National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung last spring. Since the start of the Arab Spring movements two years ago, the U.A.E. has aggressively pursued and detained individuals who it has said violated speech codes. Last month authorities here announced a new, tighter law on online dissent, saying they would impose jail terms on anyone who derides or caricatures the country’s rulers or state institutions online.

Yesterday, four people, including a former Emirati diplomat, were arrested and about 60 people in total have been detained relating to their calls for greater speech rights. Many, but not all of them, are members of Al Islah, a group that authorities say is conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the U.A.E.

Last summer, the U.A.E. expelled Matt J. Duffy, an American professor of journalism who had been teaching at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

Unlike Bahrain, there have been no mass protests in the U.A.E. For the vast majority of people living in the country, life is peaceful. Still, the government has taken strict measures against the minority of its citizens who are advocating for change. The Federal National Council, a quasi-elected legislative body with advisory power, announced that it would set up a committee to support the country’s human-rights efforts at home and abroad. Essentially, the committee will serve a public relations function for the government, defending its actions against those people whose behaviors are deemed unacceptable.

“If people badly use freedom of expression, and participate in demonstrations that impose religious intolerance or pushing others to commit anti- government crimes, the government has the right to interfere and limit those freedoms, and the parliament has the right to approve laws that run this,” the FNC report said.

The ‘Newsroom’

The first parallel universe I encountered was in the Abu Dhabi newsroom. Yesterday, American Journalism Review ran a story written by Tom O’Hara, an American editor who had spent two years there most notably, it seems, on the foreign desk.

On journalism:

“When the newspaper launched in 2008, its goal was ‘to establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world,’ according to its Web site. Well, that hasn’t happened. The mission statement should say: Don’t offend the government or anyone who has a link to it.”

On ethics:

“The censorship isn’t the only burden mainstream journalists must endure at the paper. The paper is basically a British publication with British spelling and style. But British ethics also rule – and they’re, ah, loose, shall we say.

The most flagrant abuse is putting staff bylines on wire material. It is routine practice. … The practice caused The National some embarrassment when someone sent an e-mail to media blogger/aggregator Jim Romenesko with details about systemic plagiarism in the business department. Here is part of the September 2011 post.”

A memo went out from the editor-in-chief instructing staff to comply with correct sourcing policies, which were, immediately ignored. ‘I know this because I did it myself several times a week,’ O’Hara writes.

On accuracy:

• “I would rather the readers be confused than offended.” Deputy Editor Bob Cowan, August 2010.

“Cowan, once a respected editor at the Telegraph in London, issued that guidance after telling an editor on the foreign desk to remove all references to religion from a fascinating story about an Iranian Shiite imam. The story made little sense without the religious details.”

• “This is no time to be intellectually honest.” (Editor-in-Chief Hassan) Fattah, January 2011.

“The editor shared this gem with the foreign desk after reading a story from one of our best correspondents about speculation that the revolt in Tunisia might spark other uprisings. As we all know, the speculation was accurate as the Arab Spring spread across the region in the months that followed.”

The U.A.E. media laws and free speech

The media law in the U.A.E. just got broader, and stricter.

Matt J. Duffy, a former journalism professor at Zayed University who has personal experience with the difficult balancing act regarding free speech in this part of the world, gave a good summary of the change here: “The revision, published in full in Gulf News, criminalizes anyone who uses a electronic means to ‘deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols.

The decree also offers penalties ‘of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order.”

In short, Duffy writes, these restrictions, of course, are incredibly broad and will surely lead to even more self-censorship in the United Arab Emirates. Any legitimate criticism of the government could conceivably violate ‘public order.’ Better to just stay quiet while on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube lest one step across this nebulous line set up by the new law.

A friend posted on Facebook asking if comments against Du or Etisalat, the country’s two telecom providers which have inspired many a social media rant over poor service, would also count as forbidden speech. I think it might be – both are government entities.

The new provisions came out just as state media issued an edict updating media laws just as the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court upheld a decision by the U.A.E. Ministry of Interior to strip seven Emiratis of their citizenship earlier this year.

The men had been agitating on Twitter and other online sites calling for greater political participation. Nearly 70 Emiratis have been detained by authorities since the start of the year and many of them are members of Al Islah, an Emirati Islamist group that seeks to have Islam play a more dominant role in everyday life in the U.A.E., which has long aimed to be a crossroads of East and West.

You can read my coverage for The New York Times on the detentions here, here, here and here.

 

More ‘Al Basleh’

I should’ve waited for the week to end before posting

While reading the Letters to the Editor today, I read one on this gem of a story: “Abu Dhabi man accused of rape ‘innocent because he was wearing jeans’ ” The alleged Bangladeshi rapist attacked the Filippina woman at night and put a hand on her mouth to prevent her from screaming, according to the article. This the response of the defense:

‘She said the defendant was wearing jeans, how could he undo his jeans and take them off without using both his hands? asked the lawyer.

The letter-writing reader was astonished that any self-respecting lawyer would actually utter such a defense in court. Sadly, in googling to find this story, I think I’ve found where the lawyer got his inspiration. (#facepalm)

Arabia-Asia: Two Regions At a Crossroads

For the last few months, I’ve been focused on editing a 10-story package for Forbes Asia exploring trade ties between Gulf and Asian companies written by the magazine’s contributors all over the Asian continent. We’ve covered a lot of ground, from Taiwan to Saudi, from Singapore to Oman. Please see below for a full listing of our coverage.

(Getty Images)

Karl Shmavonian, Forbes Staff

It’s debatable whether the historical metaphor is the Silk Route or Spice Route, but neither still matters literally, so we’ll say that Arabia-Asia is a commercial and financial link that is ever more important in the world economy.

In this special section, to correspond with the first Forbes Global CEO Conference in the Middle East (being held in Dubai), we take a look at parts of this expanding trade. We do so in the FORBES ASIA way, through profiles of several significant business personalities and the firms they founded.

The package was nimbly edited by Angela Shah, a writer and editor based in Dubai. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek/Daily Beast. For more about Angela, see www.angelashah.com.

Personalities play a big part in our coverage. Few people have as much boots-on-the-ground experience in both regions as does David Eldon, former chairman of HSBC Asia-Pacific. Since retiring from the bank in 2005, he has served as chairman of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority. In our interview with him he discusses a variety of issues and affirms that “trade links are trending east and south, away from the West.”

Another dealmaker in the region is Pakistani Omar Lodhi, of Dubai’s Abraaj Capital. He opened the firm’s Singapore office two years ago and is leading Abraaj’s push into Asia, particularly the ASEAN countries, whose population and GDP offer plenty of opportunity: “These regional Asian economies are akin to Europe.”

Growth in the region isn’t just about finance–even the most ambitious high-rollers take a break for dumplings and spring rolls after a long day of puts and calls. Lin Chao Wen, founder of Gulf Royal Chinese Restaurant chain, started out as a failed serial entrepreneur in Taiwan in the 1970s before he eventually ended up in Saudi Arabia, bringing Chinese food to the masses. In the process he immersed himself in Arab culture, eventually converting to Islam and building himself a lavish home in Taiwan that resembles an Arabian palace.

Just as Lin could never have known as a young man in Taiwan that he would end up in Saudi Arabia, P.N.C. Menon, founder of Sobha Developers, could never have predicted while growing up in a small Kerala village in India that he would end up being a big player in Gulf-region real estate. Says the man who appeared on the FORBES Billionaires List in 2006: “It came from nothing. I went [to the Gulf] with $7. I must have been making a little bit of money here and there to make myself comfortable.”

Another Indian who has spent a significant part of his life in the Mideast is Shaukat Ali Mir, chief operating officer for international electromechanical projects at Mumbai’s Voltas, a Tata Group company. Voltas has been providing infrastructure (plumbing, firefighting, drainage and electrical systems) for the Mideast since 1976, and Mir came to the region in 1982. Voltas’ most prestigious, and perhaps most challenging, project was providing the electromechanical guts for Dubai’s Burj Khalifa building, the world’s tallest. Mir is globalization on two legs: “I grew up in India. I am living in the Middle East. My children live in Canada, and I plan to retire in Europe.”

Just as Voltas provides infrastructure for the rapidly expanding Gulf, Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction is supplying power and desalination for the parched regionDoosan, which expects sales to hit $10 billion this year,  is increasingly going head to head with industry leaders GE, Alstom and Siemens in building power plants in overseas markets.

No survey of Asia and the Mideast would be complete without drilling into oil production. China’s biggest oilfield pipe maker, Hilong Holding,  is one of the few Chinese companies with manufacturing plants in the Middle East, its fastest-growing regional market. Hilong’s business in Saudi Arabia, its main target, is a classic example of synergy: You provide oil, I’ll provide the means to get it out of the ground–everybody makes money.

But enough about electrical systems, plumbing, turbines and dirty oil fields, what about technology and all those sleek toys that everybody wants? Vincent Lai and Andy Soh, who share a “curiosity in playing with cool stuff,” are the founders of Tocco Studios, a maker of touchscreens and software. In 2009, when Lai and Soh were students at Singapore Management University, a group of Omanis visiting the university’s business incubator wanted to learn more about the budding entrepreneurs’ screens. The Omanis were captivated, and soon Lai and Soh were doing business in the Gulf, as well as having a Singapore office.

With all the money being made these days, we would be remiss if we didn’t offer a profile of a company offering folks a way to show off their wealth. Jeweler Joy Alukkas, like our other Indians profiled, made his entry in the Mideast decades ago. He opened his first store in Abu Dhabi in 1987, offering his wares to expat Indians. Eventually he moved back to India, bringing back with him an intangible commodity: marketing and business practices accrued in the Gulf. His Joyalukkas stores had $1.33 billion in sales last year.

For slightly less upscale shopping, consumers can go to the Dragonmart mall, a mass-market oasis on the outskirts of Dubai.

Finally, we profile five companies that are learning how to navigate the cultural and business currents that join China and the Mideast. One of our snapshots is of China’s Shenguan Holdings, a maker of sausage casings that recently announced it would be offering halal meat to the Muslim world.

The Arabia-Asia economy is not on a glide path. It has famously been interrupted through the centuries but also in recent times, as global busts in commodities or real estate, or other home-market vagaries, got in the way of would-be Marco Polos. But the lure of the great crossroads and the increasing wealth they connect makes it likely that the tales here are just an inkling of many more to come.

Dubai’s ‘Mad Men’

For a recent feature for Gulf Life, the in-flight magazine for Gulf Air, I chatted with some of Dubai’s advertising executives. Some were part of the migration 30 years ago from Beirut – then the region’s ad hub – and were the founding fathers of the industry here today. Back then there was only one TV station, in Kuwait, and they communicated with clients via telex. And I’ll let Mr. Raad tell you about the Saudi commercial and the porn star.

The crackdown expands

My latest story in The New York Times about an escalation this week in arrests of Emiratis who are calling for more political freedoms and free speech rights. U.A.E. state security authorities say the men are a threat to the country’s stability.

 

 

Detentions of activists are reported in U.A.E.

DUBAI

By ANGELA SHAH

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Mohamed al-Roken drove toward his local police station here to report that his son and son-in-law were missing. Along the way, he found himself surrounded by plainclothes security officers and detained, according to his family.

Mr. Roken, along with his son, Rashid, and son-in-law, Abdulla al-Hajeri, are 3 of at least 14 Emiratis who have been arrested since Monday morning by the United Arab Emirates state security apparatus, human rights advocates and family members said. Nearly two dozen activists are now being held by the authorities.

The arrests are part of a widening crackdown on U.A.E. citizens, some of them Islamists but also academics and stateless people known as bidoon.

“This may be a way to frighten opposition on all sides,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf issues at Durham University in England.

This week’s crackdown comes days before the expected start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and highlights an increasingly public conflict in the Emirates.

Unlike many Arab countries, the Emirates have emerged largely unscathed from the unrest that has spread across the region from the Arab Spring that began 18 months ago.

But a debate on free speech and political freedom among Emiratis has emerged, as the leaders here try to maintain a balance between the more conservative character of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-style business hub.

While the trend among natives is still to keep quiet and enjoy the comfortable life provided by the rulers, a small group of activists is agitating for greater political participation — and drawing the attention of the authorities.

Bushra al-Roken, Mohamed al-Roken’s daughter, said the family received a phone call from her father at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

“We couldn’t understand that much,” she said, “but we could hear voices and my father saying, ‘They’re taking me.”’

On Sunday, the state media issued a statement saying the authorities were investigating “a group of people who established and ran an organization which aims to commit crimes against the security and constitution of the country.” Members of this group have “connections with foreign organizations and agendas,” the statement added.

Mr. Roken, a lawyer, was defending several Emiratis who had been arrested on charges of threatening state security. Many of those arrested are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization.

Many of these activists say they would like to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates, and they have also called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.

The authorities regard Al Islah as a homegrown proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that they see as gaining influence in the region — especially after the recent election of a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt’s president.

The families of those detained are scrambling to find them. Asma al-Siddiq said her husband, Omran al-Redhwan, was arrested Monday morning at the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Sharjah, where he works as a legal consultant. Ms. Siddiq said she had not heard from the authorities about the reason for her husband’s arrest or where he was being held.

“I am looking at social media sites, Twitter to try to find information,” she said.

The arrests followed the deportation to Thailand on Monday morning of Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a resident of Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, who was one of the original activists arrested and tried last year.

The men, who were convicted in November of threatening state security and insulting the country’s leaders, were sentenced to three years in prison before being pardoned days after the verdict.

Mr. Khaleq was born in the Emirates, but he is a bidoon, or stateless Arab.

Estimates of the number of bidoon range from 10,000 to 100,000, human-rights advocates say. They belong to families with ties to other parts of the Gulf or Iran, or that failed to obtain citizenship when the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971. They say they are cut out of the Emirates’ generous social welfare system and complain of discrimination in jobs.

Last month, Mr. Khaleq was given a choice of where to be deported — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan or Thailand. He chose Thailand, though he had no relations there, said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger who was among the group arrested with Mr. Abdul Khaleq last year.

Dubai: ‘Digging Out of Debt’

My latest story is in Institutional Investor magazine, on Dubai reckoning with its debt hangover, three years after it announced it would not be able to pay its debts. Here is an excerpt to the story. The full link is available here for a limited time.

 

 

 

June 2012  •  Angela Shah

IN EARLY APRIL, DUBAI’S MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT reported that the number of abandoned cars — the symbol par excellence of the once-high-flying emirate’s economic bust — rose by 10 percent in the first three months of this year from the same period a year earlier. But rather than seeing that indicator as a sign that the economy was taking a turn for the worse, leaders attributed the pickup to simple efficiency: The authorities now have three tow trucks to bring in vehicles, compared with just one last year.

The car repo business, with numbers that can be good or bad, depending on how you look at them, is a good metaphor for Dubai’s economic and financial condition. The emirate, which splashed on the global scene a decade ago with a flashy, money-is-no-object development philosophy, only to be brought down by the near-default of some of its flagship companies three years ago, has been quietly getting a handle on its debt problems. Since late 2009, Dubai and its government-related entities have restructured more than $20 billion of bank debt, nearly two thirds of the total, by arm-twisting creditors with a decree that resembles a Western-style bankruptcy restructuring. The emirate’s economy is also on the mend, with moderate growth buoyed by a rebound in tourism and trade.

Dubai may have bounced off the bottom, but it still has a long way to go to resolve its debt problems and return its economy to robust health. Government-related entities such as Dubai World, the conglomerate that set off the crisis in late 2009 by declaring a debt standstill, have rescheduled a large portion of their obligations, but they remain saddled with a massive burden. In its latest report on the United Arab Emirates, issued last month, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the overall debt of Dubai’s GREs — including bank debt, bonds and sukuk (Islamic bonds) — stands at $84.3 billion, or 60.4 percent of GDP. That debt mountain has declined by about $5 billion over the past two years, but the GREs still need to roll over an estimated $14 billion of debt this year.

Fully 10.6 percent of the loans held by Dubai banks are nonperforming, the IMF says, and that ratio could jump by another 5 percentage points this year if the authorities manage to reschedule the debt of other government-related entities. Although the real estate market shows signs of stabilizing, property prices have fallen by about 60 percent since 2008, and vacancy rates range from 20 percent for retail property to 30 percent for office buildings. Dubai is slowly healing, but there is no quick remedy for its troubles.

“The only way for Dubai to fix its problems is to grow the economy and generate income, and trade its way out,” says Neil Cuthbert, a senior partner at the Dubai office of law firm SNR Denton. “Over time it will happen. The interesting question is, how long will the banks be happy to carry on pushing out maturities?”

Continue reading “Dubai: ‘Digging Out of Debt’”

Crackdown

My latest story in The New York Times looks at the continuing struggle between U.A.E. authorities and some of their citizens who are pushing for reforms.

 

 

Emirates Step Up Efforts to Counter Dissent

By ANGELA SHAH

ABU DHABI — The United Arab Emirates have intensified their effort to quell political dissent, with 15 men now being detained by the security forces, according to human rights groups and family members.

All but two are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization. The men have called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.

Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University in Britain who is an expert on Gulf issues, said the Emirates were following the example of Bahrain, which has cracked down harshly on dissidents. Leaders of the Emirates are “emboldened” by the Bahrain government’s actions against protesters “and the lack of any significant condemnation of the Bahrain regime by the international community,” he said.

“The U.A.E. authorities want to govern over a nonpolitical country and a depoliticized population,” he said. “They want to be guardians of an economy that makes money for everyone.”

One stick that the U.A.E. government is using against dissidents is the threat of taking away their citizenship. In December, a group of seven Emiratis, all of whom are members of Al Islah, were stripped of their citizenship. They were arrested in March when they refused to seek out alternative nationalities, their families say. A court ruling on the authorities’ actions is imminent.

“This is aggressive in nature and so vicious in a way that has never been done before,” said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger. He was among the first group of Emiratis arrested and put on trial last year for calling for democratic reforms.

Continue reading “Crackdown”