The UAE’s Tech Scene is Drowning Out Massive Human Rights Abuses

Published November 9th, 2017 - 02:54 GMT
A building in Dubai burns, AFP/File
A building in Dubai burns, AFP/File


  • Masdar City, the UAE's dream ecocity, is now a ghost town
  • Meanwhile, plans to roll back human rights in the UAE is going stronger than ever
  • Migrant workers have little legal protection, and it is legal to beat and abuse wives and children
  • As much good as the tech scene does, it also deflects larger concerns that the UAE is techwashing and simply does not care about rights


Can you Buy Modernism?

Jim’s Kitchen Table is a cozy eatery that offers gluten-free options in addition to a wide array of international cuisine. Lasagna, thai curry, french toast, eggs benedict, kale--Jim’s runs the full gamut.

Jim’s is also conveniently located on the ground floor of the Siemens building in the heart of a ghost town named Masdar City. At first dreamt to have 50,000-90,000 inhabitants, Masdar now has maybe 1,000 people living in it--most of them students.

The ambitious Masdar was first conceived to be the world’s first totally eco-friendly city, leaving no carbon footprint and serving as a ‘greenprint’ for the future, attracting energy businesses and employees who would take a break from developing groundbreaking green technology to grab a quick quinoa salad at a perfect place like Jim’s.


The interior of Jim’s Kitchen Table, (courtesy of Jim’s Kitchen Table)

The plan has since stalled, and Masdar faces an uncertain future. Meanwhile, the UAE’s investments in developing an effective surveillance state are going stronger than ever, and its continual disdain for human rights protection hasn’t dissuaded investors from cultivating its burgeoning tech scene in Dubai.

The UAE’s ambitious focus on developing a tech sector has resulted in a landscape where innovation hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi dominate headlines while keeping reports of the country’s dismal human rights record on the sidelines.

In what can be called ‘techwashing,’ Masdar City and the thriving tech scene in Dubai fit a pattern of developments from the UAE where it appears to be using its technological ambitions to gloss over its various human rights violations and oppression of its own population.

The UAE is a particularly outstanding example of this pattern, since some of its exciting tech startups have direct contracts with the government to deepen its surveillance apparatus, working on mass-hacking phones to turn them into surveillance devices for the government.


The UAE’s techwashing

Migrant workers, AFP/File

On Dec. 13, 2015, Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar was forcibly disappeared and held without charge by the UAE police. In the weeks following his arrest, news coverage of the UAE focused on a new remote-controlled robot from Abu Dhabi that can perform complex surgeries.

Najjar is now serving a three-year sentence for critiquing the UAE’s government in a facebook post.

In 2008, plans for building Masdar City were finalized, and ground was broken to begin construction of the ambitious city. As construction continued into 2010, dust storms were recognized as a serious interference both to building efforts and solar panel efficiency, so experts worked to develop innovative ways to handle the hinderance.

Also in 2010, the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court ruled that men are legally allowed to beat their wives and children. To back the ruling, the court cited a provision in the penal code which protects domestic abuse as long as it doesn’t leave any noticeable physical marks.

Article 56 of the UAE’s 2005 personal status law also legally guarantees the ‘willful obedience’ of men’s wives to their husbands.

In Abu Dhabi, one of the fastest-growing cities in the Middle East, onsite deaths and suicides are the norm. In 2012, UAE officials counted worker deaths at 34. But there is reason to be skeptical of government-provided statistics, since they only reported 34 construction deaths in 2004 while the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh returned a combined total of 880 migrant worker’s corpses to their respective home countries.

Though a new UAE bill introduced this year seeks to provide a rest day and paid leave for workers, it also legally cements the kafala system, or sponsorship system--a legal apparatus employers use to exert near-total control over their workers, turning exploited labor into indentured servitude.

Under the kafala system, employers routinely confiscate workers’ passports which greatly restricts travel, underpay or outright refuse to pay workers, and alter the terms of the work contract without consulting the worker. When companies go under or bankrupt, workers are left without a legal sponsor, turning them into undocumented migrants where they must face the possibility of detention and deportation from the UAE.

Investors continue to pour money and resources into creating corporate offices for multinational companies and ambitious startups.


Dark Matters



One startup even found a reliable partner in the UAE government. DarkMatter, a cybersecurity firm that promises ‘active defense’ as a tool to enhance the security of any given system.

Last year, a contractor hired by DarkMatter revealed that the company was hired by the government to provide the tools to mass-hack phones inside the Emirates.

“Imagine that there’s a person of interest at the Dubai Mall, we’ve already set up all our probes all over the city, we press a button and BOOM! All the devices in the mall are infected and traceable,” the hacker that leaked details of the deal between DarkMatter and the UAE wrote in his blog.

DarkMatter’s hackers were reportedly working on solutions for the UAE to break into phones, access or alter data including messages it sends, or block out specific signals--a total hijacking of the device. Though the revelations were meant to be kept secret, DarkMatter is a strong public ally of the UAE government.

“As a strategic partner to governments and critical entities, we have the proven integrity, intelligence and cyber security capability to safeguard a nation,” its website reads.

But in practice, this means that DarkMatter’s main goal is to facilitate governmental infringement of privacy rights.

“Basically it’s big brother on steroids,” the DarkMatter leaker told The Intercept over email.

DarkMatter is still operating strong, winning both Gulf Business’ “Company of the Year” award and Gulf Business’ “Technology Company of the Year” for 2017.

Though Masdar City languishes in the desert, and there are few residents to sit on the leather couches in the luxurious but oh-so-casual Jim’s Kitchen Table, it almost doesn’t matter.

The primary goal of developing a sustainable ecocity remains a dream, but in even existing, it is able to drum up enough noise to help drown out larger concerns for human rights abuses and an ever-expanding surveillance state developing.

In this way, Masdar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the proverbial cycle of hype surrounding their latest tech developments or ambitious startups form a glossy but hollow shell--one big enough to fit over the UAE’s shadowy system of governance.

The shell looks nice and is producing useful technological developments for the world, but it is deflecting concerns that hidden underneath it is a disaster for human rights sanctioned and paid for by the UAE.

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