A hard edge to Dubai’s glittering allure


He was patting his two little children dry after an outing at the pool when the five men and a woman came to the door. They said they had a court order to search his apartment.

Dubai surveillance: An article in Monday’s Section A about Dubai’s security apparatus said that scholar Syed Ali was with his two children when he was detained by authorities. He has two children now but had only one at the time of the encounter. —

They already seemed to know a lot about Syed Ali, a U.S. citizen of Indian descent. That his wife and kids had just arrived from New York. That he was a researcher chatting with expatriate workers in the Persian Gulf state, asking them a lot of questions.

They grabbed his computer, his files, even his iPod. And they told him to put on his shoes. He was to come with them.

The scholar was stunned. During his few months in Dubai, he had grown fond of the glittery city-state, with its seemingly carefree spirit, high-end hotels and market economy.

“My initial feeling about Dubai was that here you have a place that’s an autocracy by definition, but it’s socially wide open,” he said. “I bought into the hype of Dubai, that you have economic and social freedoms that no one will impinge upon. The reality is if you don’t do anything to offend anyone, you’ll never know the reality.”

Ubiquitous surveillance

Dubai’s security officials recently wowed the world by producing carefully assembled security video apparently showing the team behind the Jan. 19 assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud Mabhouh in his hotel room.

As much of the world learned in the aftermath of the killing, Dubai has cameras everywhere, watching every move of every person getting off the planes at Dubai International Airport and making their way to their hotels, homes and offices.

A Lebanese military commander who was recently granted access to the vast auditorium that serves as a command and control center for Dubai police said he was under the impression that they have installed cameras inside the rooms too.

“But if they say this publicly,” he said, “no one will go to Dubai.”

Security insiders contend there is a dark side to such surveillance tools in a place like Dubai, a monarchy with weak legal safeguards protecting people’s privacy and political liberty.

Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim insists that people’s privacy is being protected.

“Breach of privacy in Dubai is forbidden by the law,” he told the daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in March. “We do not have anything that could be called a violation to the right of privacy, and these cameras and surveillance tools are only used in extreme cases.”

But human rights activists and labor advocates say that is patently untrue. Although security is the No. 1 concern in Dubai, one of the seven states of the United Arab Emirates, the government has used the same tools to squash dissent or hide abuses of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who help keep the $230-billion economy running.

In 2007, authorities sentenced prominent Emirati human rights lawyer Mohammad Abdulla Roken to prison on charges of adultery after claiming they found him in his hotel room alone with a German woman, a case condemned by human rights groups as an attempt to silence voices of dissent.

One time, an American television news crew arrived in Dubai to do a report about migrant workers at a camp notorious for exploiting them, said a Dubai-based security analyst. Authorities stepped into action even before the team arrived at the facility. “All of a sudden the camp had running water and was cleaned up,” said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another security analyst, Theodore Karasik, of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Affairs, once got the OK to visit the ports for a report on nuclear weapons smuggling.

When he got to the facility, they sat him down and played a movie. He was the star. They had followed him and his group on closed circuit television from the time they left the airport.

Karasik was spooked. But in retrospect, he understands. Despite an estimated eight attempts by Al Qaeda to launch attacks here, Dubai has remained unscathed, described by its boosters as a fast-paced and luxurious Las Vegas with glass-and-steel high-rise towers, huge aquariums full of sharks and mammoth shopping malls (one of them featuring an indoor ski slope.)

“Violence and the willingness of some to commit violence demands greater surveillance,” he said. “Outsiders will come here and see a police state. But you need this kind of surveillance to protect the citizens at large.”


The security officers ordered Ali to put his head down as they entered what appeared to be a side gate at the massive compound housing Dubai’s police headquarters.

“It was way deep inside the police station,” Ali said. “We ended up in a secluded spot with lovely plants.”

It was obvious to Ali by then that he wasn’t in the hands of ordinary cops.

Then the questioning began. Why are you here? Who do you know? He explained that he was a Fulbright scholar, on a grant by the very U.S. government that was the United Arab Emirates’ main strategic partner.

Ali, now 41, was in Dubai researching about second-generation expatriates from South Asia for an academic paper about how professional Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in the Persian Gulf were adjusting to life and work far from home, in a place where they could live in for decades but could never gain permanent residency. He was shocked that his line of inquiry would set off alarm bells.

“It ended up I was interviewing people who were quite well off,” he said. “That’s why I was so really stunned. I never had any sense that there was anything objectionable about what I was doing. No one had any serious complaints about being there.”

He had just finished his research and was about to leave for a vacation in India with his family. The interrogators knew all that, too. They had certainly been tracking his movements, since he had moved to the borrowed apartment only two days earlier. Perhaps they were listening to his phone calls.

Yet despite the reams of information they had on him, “there was a lack of basic information that they didn’t get or have or really understand,” said Ali, who wrote about his experiences in Dubai for Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

They didn’t seem to get what a Fulbright was. “‘We think you’re working for the ‘Jewish,’ ” one interrogator accused Ali, who is a secular Muslim. “‘Maybe also the CIA.’”

They provided no evidence.

Ordeal ends

About 13 hours after he was arrested and held incommunicado, Ali was allowed to go free. Calls by his wife, Eli Pollard, to the U.S. Consulate had apparently spurred officials into action.

Before he left police custody, Ali said the authorities told him he was barred from ever entering Dubai again. Soon after, they returned his computer and gave him a new iPod. Later he found out that the computer’s hard drive had been removed.

The general outlines of Ali’s experience were confirmed by a U.S. official.

After he got back home, Ali wrote a lengthy e-mail to the Dubai police chief, Tamim, detailing his last few hours in Dubai. To Ali’s surprise, the police chief wrote back.

“All of the procedures … were in accordance with the UAE established law, including your detention, which was carried out under the eyes of the country’s judicial authorities,” he said in Arabic-language letter, a copy of which Ali shared with The Times. “I would like to assure you that you were not deported from the country. You are welcome to come back at any time as a visitor, but not as someone who is doing security or authority-sponsored research.”

Ali hasn’t been back. From New York he began doing more research, interviewing more people and coming to believe that the real key to Dubai’s stability may not be oil wealth or a free market but fear.

“I had to go back and think about what is the basis of how this place operates,” he said. “It made me realize that not everything is on the surface. Anything that seems remotely political or offensive, people avoid doing. You don’t get into conflicts with Emiratis. You don’t say anything political. Every expat who is there on these short-term visas, whether they think about it or not, they’re living very contingent lives.”

Now an assistant professor of sociology at Long Island University in Brooklyn, his obscure thesis on expatriate workers eventually became “Dubai: Gilded Cage, a highly critical book about the emirate released by Yale University Press last month.

Los Angeles social scientist Mike Davis sums up the book as “a comprehensive expose of the economic and sexual exploitation that erected this utopia of greed.”

Ali can’t help but note the irony. Had Dubai authorities left him alone, they would have gotten off far more easily.

“They turned a harmless little monograph that would hardly make a ripple into a much more noticeable work,” he said. “If their intent was to make it go away, that was a bad move.”