Tintin story or real life? Escape from Dubai

Andrew Higgins’s story yesterday in the Washington Post about Herve Jaubert’s escape from Dubai reads like something out of a Tintin comic: mysterious international wealthy people, treacherous sheikhs, PG-13 violence. Jaubert’s story is offered as an example of the growing number of rich Dubai expats who are running into trouble with the country’s police over business crimes. After their investments with his company went sour, Dubai authorities apparently accused Jaubert — “a French spy who left espionage to make leisure submarines for the wealthy” — of embezzlement. They allegedly threatened him with torture (Jaubert recorded the conversation on his cell phone) and confiscated his passport. So Jaubert decided to escape. He donned an all-black diving outfit, snuck out to the bay in the dead of night disguised in an abaya, swam to and disabled a police patrol boat, rode a rubber dinghy to a sailboat where a friend waited, and sailed to India.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a plot from Tintin and the Golden Dhow. I mean, how many times have Thomson and Thompson, Professor Calculus or Tintin himself used an abaya as a disguise? And take a look at the lead shot of Jaubert. He looks like he could be a colleague of Rastapopoulos.

Rastapopoulos

Rastapopoulos

But what really struck me about these stories emerging from Dubai about expats getting charged with fraud and other financial crimes are the suggestions that (1) people are just now realizing the “dark side” of development there and (2) the astonishment that there could be injustice in a place that has been so drooled over and praised in the American media and government. The Post article reads:

Jaubert said he heard whispers about Dubai’s darker side — the abuse of desperate laborers from impoverished Asian lands, the jailing of the occasional Westerner who crossed a sheik — but “I brushed it all off. I saw glamour. I saw marble columns, mirrors and money.”
Andrew Higgins –
As Dubai’s Glitter Fades, Foreigners See Dark Side

Whispers? I was in Dubai for four days last year, and the “darker side” was a blaring scream on every street corner. You’d really need to be sense-challenged not to see that the capitalist orgy taking place there — while laudably providing a venue for educated Arabs to work and earn decent wages — was based on unsustainable construction, the exploitation of South Asian labor and the complacency of a privileged class of Western expats, some of whom literally don’t know what the local language of the Emirates is. (Full disclosure here: being strip-searched and accused of smuggling drugs when I landed in Dubai sort of took the edge off the bling for me.)

The fact of Dubai’s excesses is as much — if not more — of an indictment of the Westerners who sang its praises for years, as it is of the emirate itself. What it comes down to is that no one is willing to believe that a place with Starbucks, McDonalds and megamalls could also suffer from governance issues. Globalization’s boosters (The Lexus and the Olive Tree, ahem) trust the artifacts of consumerism more than any other variable. Thus their totally unwarranted astonishment at things turning sour for them in Dubai.

(And who’s to say that there’s no truth to the charges that some of these folks were involved in financial crimes? The way business was being run it’s not hard to believe. If it happened on Wall Street, believe it happened in a place where the symphony of excess was that much louder.)

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