Why will.i.am and Mariah Carey should say 'no' to Dubai Expo

Why will.i.am and Mariah Carey should say 'no' to Dubai Expo
6 min read
24 Oct, 2019
Comment: Celebrities, businesses and governments still have time to take a stand against UAE's human rights record, and pull their support from Dubai Expo 2020, writes Lyndon Peters.
Mariah Carey performed this week at the one year countdown to Dubai Expo 2020 [Twitter]
His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan proclaimed 2019 as the 'Year of Tolerance', but for many it has been the Year of Intolerance. 

So far this year, the situation for human rights defenders and political prisoners in the UAE has deteriorated. Over 135 human rights organisations issued a joint call last week for the release of human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, who recently turned 50 in solitary confinement at Al-Sadr prison, Abu Dhabi.

Despite its unacceptable human rights violations, the UAE will be rewarded a year from now, in October 2020, as trade delegations representing 134 nations and businesses from all sectors attend Dubai Expo 2020.

Earlier this month, an investigation published by The Guardian revealed that migrant labourers building the venues for Expo 2020 have died due to heat exposure. Although regulations in the UAE technically prohibit working at the hottest times of day, laws intended to protect the workers have not been enforced.

The UAE is passing up an opportunity to take the lead on an issue for which all Gulf states have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Yet according to a report published by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, out of 260 construction contracts awarded in the UAE since January 2018, 62 projects have been awarded to companies who have failed to disclose human rights safeguards.

Businesses and trade delegations taking part in Dubai Expo 2020 are complicit because these projects include their exhibition venues.

Nevertheless it seems "The World's Greatest Show" will go on and with the help of Mariah Carey, will.i.am and Lionel Messi, Dubai Expo 2020 is not short of celebrity endorsements.
That Lionel Messi and will.i.am would promote an event on behalf of the UAE government is unfathomable
Mariah Carey, dressed in a gown encrusted with Swarovski crystals headlined a concert at Burj Park in Downtown Dubai this week to mark the one-year countdown to Expo 2020.

The rapper will.i.am provides the voiceover on an Expo 2020 promotional video in which he reels off a series of great accomplishments in the history of human civilisation. "You weren't there when they created algebra, built the pyramids in Giza or painted the Mona Lisa." But, he continues, "you could be there and with your own eyes witness new acts of human genius".

In 2007 will.i.am, as part of the Black Eyed Peas, recorded a song for a charity album called Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur. Darfuris suffered massacres at the hands of Janjaweed militias. Rebranded as the RSF, former Janjaweed militias, are now a key ally of the UAE within Sudan itself, and have fought as mercenaries for the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Libya.

Hemedti, a former leader of the Janjaweed during the War in Darfur owns many gold mines in Darfur. The UN suggests that 
billions of dollars of gold was exported illegally from Sudan to Dubai between 2010 and 2014.

 A private security officer observes construction at the site of the Expo 2020 [AFP]

Meanwhile Lionel Messi is "Proud to be an Expo 2020 Dubai ambassador" and he features in a promotional video for the event. In 2016 he donated $72,000 to the NGO Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF). MSF have provided medical services in various parts of Yemen during the ongoing conflict, and their hospitals have been hit by the airstrikes of the Saudi coalition of which the UAE is a member.

Last April in Aden, which at the time was occupied by the UAE, 
MSF were forced to suspend admissions to Al Sadaqah hospital after a patient was killed in an attack by a militia.

That Lionel Messi and will.i.am would promote an event on behalf of the UAE government is unfathomable, especially considering their previous support for Medecins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International respectively.

There is still time for trade delegations to reconsider their attendance

The UK government and the City of London Corporation have also played a major role in securing Dubai's position in the global economy. Each year the Lord Mayor of London visits Dubai to meet with the Emirate's ruling family.

The Dubai International Financial Centre is an independent jurisdiction with English laws based on the London Court of International Arbitration. Political economist Ronen Palan includes Dubai and Bahrain alongside the likes of the Cayman Islands in what he calls "the second British Empire" which consists of British overseas territories and former protectorates which are either tax havens or low-tax jurisdictions. 

As an offshore financial centre, Dubai is an attractive destination for businesses and illicit flows of money. Both Beirut and Bahrain have had a similar reputation in the past, and now Dubai has the epithet of "Switzerland of the Middle East."

In a visit to Libya as Foreign Minister in 2017 Boris Johnson said in an infamous speech: "They have got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai. The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away." Sirte is a city badly ravaged by a war in Libya, where the UAE is a prominent actor.

Read more: UAE's friends on UN Security Council are allowing it to act with impunity

While Dubai is certainly more stable than Libya, it is not exactly a safe or secure place to do business, unless you are close to the Al-Maktoum royal family or the Al-Nahyan's from Abu Dhabi (Dubai's de-facto lenders of last resort).

The financial crisis hit Dubai badly and only the bailout from oil-rich Abu Dhabi prevented an economic collapse. Construction projects were at risk of never being completed, including the Burj Khalifa which was belatedly named in honour of Abu Dhabi's ruler, Khalifa bin Zayed.

Ever since, Abu Dhabi has taken the opportunity to exercise greater political power over Dubai within the federal system of the UAE.

In 1985 when Emirates Airline was launched by the government of Dubai, Abu Dhabi was unsettled, interpreting it as an attempt to upstage them and a challenge to the balance of power in the UAE. The recent launch of Air Arabia Abu Dhabi as a partner of Etihad Airways to rival Emirates Airlines and Fly Dubai is just the latest stage in the rivalry between the royal family's of the two Emirates.

The main site of Expo 2020 is located, perhaps diplomatically, half way between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi certainly won't wish to be upstaged, especially considering Saudi Arabia will host the G20 summit in November 2020, and Qatar will host World Cup in 2022.

Dubai's ruler has done a great deal to harm the image of UAE by kidnapping and holding his own daughter Latifa against her will

Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum has done a great deal by himself to harm the image of the UAE by kidnapping and holding his own daughter Latifa against her will. Arguably though, it has been the aggressive foreign policy of Mohamed bin Zayed that has caused most harm to the UAE's reputation in recent years.

With one year until Dubai Expo 2020, there is still time for trade delegations to reconsider their attendance and for businesses to consider their human rights policies.

There is also time for the UAE to stop violating the rights of their own citizens, enforce protections for migrant workers and cease the harmful interventions in Yemen, Libya and Sudan. 

Lyndon Peters is an independent activist and researcher. His work focuses on the UK's relationship with the Gulf states. He has worked with human rights organisations on many issues relating to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.

Follow him on Twitter @LyndonPeters01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.