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)

‘Al Basleh’

“Al Basleh” means “The Onion” in Arabic. I thought it was appropriate since reading local media in this here Arabian peninsula is always good for a jolt. What reads as satire is actually honest-to-goodness news stories. They run from the science-defying story on the doctor who pronounced a pregnant woman as still a virgin or the idiotic escapades of drunken Brits getting arrested after having sex on the beach, in a taxi, or elsewhere.

As we wait for the returns in the U.S. election, I offer you some light reading from this week, starting with this gem: “Man walking pet monkey kills neighbor in barmaid feud.”

DUBAI // A drugged-up man walking his monkey kicked his neighbour to the ground, bit his nose and poured sand into his mouth before leaving him to die in a dispute over a barmaid, a court heard today.

This guy didn’t kill anyone.

‘Yes, I did it,’ the 31-year-old SE told the Criminal Court.

Earlier this week I learned that some facial hair-challenged Gulfies have been able to find follicle transplants in Turkey. According to the article in The National, many are there to replenish the “main hair” but others are there to fill up patchy beards and mustaches – the ultimate manly symbol in these parts. The Turkish transplant specialist in the story said the hit to the self-confidence of these men is brutal. “It’s not a macho-problem, it’s a real need,” he said. “I have had grown men in here crying.”

These men are spending more than 4,000 euros for the procedure.

“I always wanted to have a beard. It is attractive,” said one businessman, 42, who was quoted by the paper. “I also wanted to have a beard when carrying out the Haj for Islamic reasons. Going to Haj with a beard is a dream come true.”

Aww, you go girl. Whatever makes you feel pretty.

Dog days

You’d think that having hit summer #4 that I would at least be used to it. But I’m not.

My car’s temperature gauge at 10:30 a.m. one recent morning.

“Summer” as in the season known to be hot essentially starts here in April when it stops being comfortable to sit outdoors and generally lasts until early November. But last week meant the real start of summer around here; temperatures hitting 115 degrees and humidity levels at 60 percent and upwards. I’m sucking down water but I’m still constantly dehydrated.

I’m certainly not trying to dismiss the pain of the heatwave engulfing the U.S. right now. Hot is hot and losing your AC because the power’s out is pure misery. Thankfully, the power is steady here. They know what the temps are like here and at least the Dubai electricity company has made sure the grid can handle it. (Not so lucky in neighboring Sharjah which regularly suffers power cuts during the summer.)

It’s not like I’m some tenderfoot. I grew up in Texas. I’m used to hot summers. But Gulf heat is something else. It’s hard to explain how hot 115 degrees is. And, no, it’s not a dry heat. The U.A.E. may be desert but it does not skimp when it comes to providing you the fullest extent of hell come summertime. It’s humid here in a way that would make Florida and Houston blush.

Really, at this end of the thermometer, does it matter? Sure it’s dry in Kuwait. But it’s also 123 degrees. Misery is misery.

To cope, you hide indoors all day, closing the blinds against the sun. In the Gulf, you get cabin fever in the summer. Living here really shows you how merciless and deadly the sun can be. Step outside and you’re immediately blinded. (A good pair of sunglasses is key to living here. Of course it’s so humid that as soon as you put them on, they fog up, rendering you blind anyway.)

There is no longer a cold water spigot. Oh, sure, it’s there, taunting you on the right side of the faucet. But it does not release cool, refreshing water. You don’t bother turning on the hot spigot because the cold water is hot enough, thank you! I’ve not had the hot water heater on in my bathroom for four days. Shower is still scalding hot.

I’m lucky. What about the workers at construction sites or in neighborhoods, making deliveries or hauling gas canisters with a paltry midday break? They don’t even have the luxury of complaining, I suppose.

The heat won’t subside until October, when the temperatures will consistently drop below 100 degrees. At least in the U.S., the areas affected by the heatwave will have their power restored soon and temperatures will begin dipping out of the danger zone well before October. When they do, please spare me — and, more importantly, these workers — a thought.

Arabic lessons

Two months ago, I started taking Arabic classes. I meant to start when I first moved here but, for a variety of reasons, didn’t pull the trigger. But when I realized that a Berlitz school was right across the street from where I worked, well, I figured I had no more excuses.

I’m in a small class of four people, including me. Funnily enough, what our group has in common is Spanish. On guy, from Ireland, spent 12  years living and working in Spain. The other two girls are from Colombia. When we can’t remember our Arabic vocabulary during class, we prompt each other in Spanish. (Our teacher is from Morocco and speaks French, not Spanish.)

I wish I could say that I was going to be fluent in Arabic. I’m really in awe of people who can seamlessly switch from one fluent language to another. But I am learning a lot, and enjoying learning it with my classmates and teachers, and a little bit of knowledge is better than none, right?

Today, I took my final exam for the first segment. I have to admit that I was nervous! (I had to remind the over-achieving Asian in me that I was taking these classes for fun.) I had prepared flashcards, pictured above, to help me remember, but I was having some trouble.

For whatever reason, the 20 or so verbs (only present tense so far) that we learned all begin with the sound of ‘b,’ which I found makes memorizing more difficult. If they all start with the same sound – and some are so close phonetically that the difference is nearly imperceptible – memory aids are harder to find. Another thing that throws you off is that Arabic doesn’t have a “to be” verb; you just launch right in to the action.

I really hope to move on to the second level, but I’m not sure if my travel schedule will permit me to miss so many classes, so we’ll see. Maybe I’ll try to go the private tutor route which would be more flexible. A new world is being opened up to me and I’d like to go a bit further in.

Extreme communication

My car stalled at a hotel last Saturday night. After three U.A.E. summers, the battery just wore out and needed replacing. Since the garage couldn’t take my car until Wednesday, I’ve been taking taxis all week.

I climbed into one a few mornings ago and the driver took off like a shot, ping-ponging me around the back seat. Once I managed to anchor myself in, I took a breath and asked the driver calmly to please drive slower. (The deep breath is important as taxi drivers here can be very beligerent, especially to women passengers.) The driver launched into a rant about how he had been waiting for two hours watching customers prefer hotel cars over his next-in-line taxi for trips out to the airport, i.e. a good fare. He ranted that when he finally got a customer, it is you. I was going to J.L.T., which costs only about 20 dirhams.

I told him I was sorry, but it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t cause him to have to wait. Would he like to take me back and pick up someone else? I could understand his disappointment. I mean, who doesn’t want to maximize the income potential? But I also didn’t want to die in the back of a cab because the driver was being fueled with rage driving down Sheikh Zayed Road.

Continue reading “Extreme communication”


One of the most visible signs of the economic downturn was the abandoned car. Throughout 2009 and 2010, you saw these vehicles fairly regularly, sitting in parking garages, along the street or on sandlots. The convertible tops were threadbare from exposure to the sun and sand; the interiors filled with coffee cups and other trash that some truly classless people had tossed inside. Some of these cars were very expensive cars, Ferraris and siblings, which no doubt during the good times were lovingly detailed and cared for. Their former owners had lost their jobs and could no longer make the payments, and so, “did a runner.”

I haven’t run across as many of them lately. But today in JLT, I parked next to this one. And it reminded me of a recent report from Dubai Municipality that there were more abandoned cars – about 10 percent more – the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2011.

On the passenger side, someone had scrawled: “I’m sad. I remember when I was new and shiny.”

Continue reading “Abandoned”

U.A.E. Islamists, update

The #UAE7, members of the Islamist group al Islah, were detained Monday, a week before a scheduled hearing concerning the men’s petition to have their U.A.E. citizenship reinstated. They were stripped of their citizenship quietly in December after being deemed threats to national security. “There has been no court, no trial, not even a single meeting” to explain the reason, said Shaheen al-Hosani, one of the men, in an interview I had with him last month.

They denied they were doing anything to destabilize the U.A.E. and said they were loyal citizens to their country. “We don’t believe in anything that is terrorism,” Dr. Ali al Hammadi, a lecturer and owner of training centers who lives in the emirate Sharjah told me.

“We are a very peaceful people,” he added. “We don’t believe we have to change our government.” He said he and other members didn’t want change as in regime change a la Tunisia and Egypt. “We want reforming, not changing.”

On Monday, a daughter of one of the detained men said her father, Muhammed Abdel Razzaq al Siddiq, was detained by police that day after refusing to sign a declaration to seek a new nationality within two weeks or face imprisonment. “My father called us. … He refused to sign the declaration as now he is stateless, so he was detained along with the other five men,” Alaa al-Siddiq said, according to a Reuters report.

Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer defending the six, confirmed the men been detained for refusing to seek an alternative citizenship and said they have been transferred to prison, Reuters reported.

‘The Help’

Forgive me, but in the last few weeks Donna Summer has been ringing in my head.

No, I’m not on an ’80s nostalgia trip. But reading this and this does makes me wonder how Summer’s everywoman would have reacted to this statement:

“The problem is not whether maids will use their days off to run away. Rather, the exponential increase in days off may lead them to squander their hard-earned pay instead of saving it to help finance a better life when they return home. The higher risk of promiscuity, extramarital affairs and unintended pregnancies are also possible consequences.”

This was one reason cited by a letter writer to Singapore’s Straits Times about why housemaids should not get ONE day off a week. This particular person cited the hardship on her family. Who would take care of the children or the elderly if the maid has the day off??

Uh …. you?

How do you get to a place where you believe that is a valid argument supporting essentially slave-like conditions for your employees. And not just any employee: These are the people who care for your children and your elderly parents! They live in your home!

The sad thing is, I’m not surprised by such attitudes. That Singaporean letter writer has plenty of company in the Gulf. Most expatriate and Emirati families here, too, have at least one nanny to take care of the kids. At the malls it’s not uncommon to see two or three Filippina/Indonesian women steering the baby stroller or keeping hold of an unruly child’s hand — in addition to carting around the shopping bags — as the parents glide undisturbed in front.

Continue reading “‘The Help’”