Persian Gulf

07.30.134:45 AM ET

Dubai’s Progressive Charade

The recent sentencing and subsequent pardon of a Norwegian woman claiming rape in Dubai reveals a struggle between its deep-seated conservative laws and its image as a modern tourist hotspot.

With its luxury high-rises and shopping malls chock-full of designer shops, Dubai exudes the cosmopolitan façade of a city firmly set in the shiny 21st century. Complete with the tallest building in the world, it seems to be the beacon of modernity in the oil-saturated United Arab Emirates. And tourism numbers show the outside world agrees. This May, the annual MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index ranked Dubai seventh among cities with the most international travel and spending. But in the past few years, a series of high-profile jailings of foreigners depicts a very different Dubai, one not on the travel posters: a conservative country governed by hard-line Islamist law and patrolled by police who are more inclined to blame victims than catch the perpetrators of sexual violence.

Last Wednesday, 24-year-old Marte Deborah Dalelv returned home to Norway from a nightmarish ordeal. In the months prior, she claimed she’d been raped by a colleague after a night out with her business partners during a work trip in Dubai. Upon reporting the case to the police, she was ultimately convicted of extramarital sex (a jailable offense in the country), drinking alcohol, and perjury—and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Visitors to Dubai are given fair warning by most foreign governments, which advise tourists to act in accord with the country's strict codes, despite its lenient reputation in comparison to its Gulf neighbors. Enforcement incidents continue to occur with a frequency surprising for such a seemingly modernized destination.

But now, a country unused to being chided on the international stage has had its bluff called, and it seems that concern for a polished reputation outweighs the traditional legal precedent.

After an outcry from government officials in Norway and a subsequent media storm, the monarch of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, granted Dalelv (and her accused rapist) a pardon. But where did Dalelv go wrong? In doing what all victims of an alleged sexual assault presume they should do: reporting it to police.

Marte Deborah Dalelv from Norway, 24, was initally sentenced to 16 months in jail for having sex outside of marriage after she reported an alleged rape, before being allowed to return to her country after her story invoked global outrage.
Marte Deborah Dalelv from Norway, 24, was initially sentenced to 16 months in jail for having sex outside of marriage after she reported an alleged rape, before being allowed to return to her country after her story invoked global outrage. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Legal cases against foreigners for such seemingly minor transgressions as sending flirty text messages (for which an Indian pair was sentenced to three months in jail), or exchanging a kiss in public (which resulted in a one-month jail sentence for a British couple), expose the point where the confluence of high-end tourism and conservative government implode. In a country that prides itself as a destination for business and pleasure travelers, the response to sexual-assault claims is shockingly archaic.

For a rape conviction to actually be handed down, UAE law mandates either a confession from the rapist or a witness account from four adult males. And with neither of those things readily available, along with laws on the books that make extramarital sex illegal, women reporting rape are likely to find themselves as the subject of criminal investigation and, often, harsh sentencing.

Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, is quick to point out the disparity. “I think people go there and see the five-star hotels and the shopping malls, and you assume that everything must be safe,” he says. “And the reality is, if you come into contact with the police for any reason, you could be in a fair amount of trouble.” McGeehan, who has spent seven years working on rights issues in the UAE, dubs the projected image of Dubai and the UAE as progressive and modern “a total farce.”

Last year, a British woman reporting a rape by three Saudi men was fined for alcohol consumption. In 2008, an Australian woman who claimed she was gang-raped at a hotel languished in prison for eight months before receiving a pardon. Two years later, a British woman who went to police after allegedly being raped by a waiter at a hotel where she and her fiancé were staying was taken to court for having extramarital sex, but subsequently released.

“We'd gone for a weekend break in the sun in Dubai because we were in love and it looked like paradise in brochures,” she told The Sun. “It never occurred to us that, as an unmarried couple, we might end up in jail.”

The economic powerhouse has been notoriously rough on foreigners caught subverting the strict Islamic laws—but in the past few years, international ire has been rarely been raised over cases of reported rape where the woman ends up serving jail time. Norway’s furious reaction last week meant Dalelv’s case had a more positive ending than her predecessors’, which had received scant attention.

Why? Because the UAE is unaccustomed to outside forces causing a scene about rights-related issues, says McGeehan: “The UAE is very good at exerting its strategic and economic importance to ensure that it’s numerous allies in the West don’t raise objections even when their citizens are mistreated.”

This time, with headlines splattered across CNN, BBC, and The New York Times, international outrage “led to an enormous amount of embarrassment to the UAE, which is a country that’s incredibly focused on maintaining a very progressive image despite the reality that it’s not,” McGeehan says. “For Dubai I think it was—one hesitates to say—a business decision, but I think they weighed out the cost of keeping them in jail versus the benefits of pardoning her.”

The issue, McGeehan says, lies less in Islamic law than in the fact that most police do not believe the women coming forward with rape claims, and then often turn to victim blaming. “They accuse them of having consensual sex and because of that, any forensic examination is rendered obsolete,” he says. Dalelv’s case was convoluted because she says she was advised by her company to recant her statement, which apparently gave the court no choice but to charge her and her alleged attacker with sex outside marriage. After her conviction, Dalelv expressed her dismay to Reuters that the initial evidence was so discredited. “I am very surprised because we had a DNA report, we had a medical report ... and still [they] didn't believe me,” she said.

“Marte should not need a pardon, she should have been given support and protection by the law,” the Emirates Center for Human Rights wrote in a statement after the case.

In a 2010 editorial for The Guardian, Human Rights Watch researcher Nadya Khalife juxtaposed the UAE’s self-projected modernity and otherwise notable efforts to promote gender equality with the treatment of rape victims, as in the case of an 18-year-old local woman sentenced to a year in jail after reporting she was gang-raped by six men.

"The UAE's law on illicit sex is not unusual in the region, but the government's public commitment to gender equality is,” Khalife wrote, praising the nation’s otherwise “commendable strides,” but pointing out the barrier it has yet to overcome. “If the UAE is serious about promoting women's rights, it needs to ensure an effective response to sexual violence.”

Unfortunately, McGeehan doesn’t see a quick fix, involving some simple tweaks to the law, to offset the long-term cultural repercussions of legislation criminalizing extramarital sex—for example, he points out, the country doesn’t even have one independent women’s shelter. “[The UAE] has a history of responding to PR crises with very public initiatives, which aren’t designed to address the structural problem, but to repair the damage to its reputation,” he says.

Until the foundational response evolves, public outcry seems to have served its purpose. With its brochure-ready cityscape marred each hour the scandal stayed plastered on the homepages of nearly every major news site—not to mention spread via the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseMarte promoted by Norway’s foreign affairs minister—Dubai relented.

"The Norwegian government, but also the social networks, created pressure to pardon me," Dalelv told Spiegel Online upon her return home.

And that’s how you call the country’s bluff.