Dr. Mohammed al-Roken in his Dubai office
The last 4 days I was in Dubai – no, not in order to admire the construction of the Burj Dubai, soon to be the tallest buildig in the world, ski down the slopes of Ski Dubai or to sip cold beer with Marcus Vetter and Ismael Kathib from Cinema Jenin on the terraces of one of the numerous luxery hotels (although we did just that, as Marcus and Ismael are currently in Dubai to show The Heart of Jenin at the Dubai Film Festival. Btw: The audience loved it).
My purpose there was much more academic, but not less inspiring, as I was invited to attend a German-Arab media dialogue organised by the German Foreign Office about cultural globalisation. For two days 20+ intellectuals from the Arab and German speaking world discussed the changes societies go through in the current phase of globalisation and whether or not the development path Dubai has taken is (or should be) a model for the rest of the Arab world.
Building Towers, Cheating Workers
Of course, I didn’t quite manage to restrain my project scouting activities for betterplace.org. Especially not, after Anja, back at the Berlin office, had identified a contact at Human Rights Watch and put me in touch with Hadi Ghaemi, the author of the report Building Towers, Cheating Workers. The report addresses the many problems of the up to 500.000 South Asian low-wage migrants labouring on the construction sites and staffing the service industries in Dubai.
Hadi, who by now has his own NGO based in New York - International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, had recommended that I speak to Mohamad Al Roken, the – according to the Washington Post – most prominent human rights lawyer in Dubai - about possible collaborations between betterplace.org and local Emirati NGOs.
Lawyers on betterplace.org
From my point of view, the strengthening of legal practice in countries with non-democratic, totalitarian or paternalistic governments is one of the most important leverage for a better world. Many countries, such as the Peoples Republic of China or the United Arabic Emirates , have sound laws – in theory. But they are only rarely enforced, as citizens don’t know about their rights and vested political interests work against them. Thus I think it would make great sense to assemble a number of good legal projects on betterplace.org, which could be supported by (German) legal professionals, from law professors to judges or lawyers.
When I went to see Al Ruken in his office in the old part of Dubai, he confirmed, that there are no obvious NGOs for betterplace to work with in this area. There are very few NGOs in the UAE and the development of a civil society is still in its infancy. Yet, there are a number of possible collaborations which would make great sense according to al-Roken:
- organize an exchange between the law department of a German university and a group of young lawyers from the UAE (this could be done in cooperation with the Jurists Association in the Emrirates).
- sponsor the translation of Arabic written UAE law into English, in order to enable foreigners (making up 85% of the whole population in Dubai) to access laws relevant to them (such as residency laws, labour laws etc.)
- sponsor lawyers from the UAE to take on more pro-bono cases for poor clients, for example in the realm of labour law.
With regards to the last point: there are a number of lawyers willing to represent poor migrant workers against their companies. These cases concern serious abuses of construction workers by employers, such as unpaid or extremely low wages, several years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions that result in apparently high rates of death and injury.
The laws to deal with these cases are in place, yet, most migrants don’t have enough money to pay the necessary fees: one case costs between $1.500-2.000 and lawyers can only take on a limited number of pro-bono cases without jeopardizing their own economic survival. So, how about if Dubai lawyers – selected by Mohammed al-Roken – start posting their clients cases on betterplace (such as, for example, Sol y Vida, does for medical cases) and german lawyers provide the legal fees?