What did you think of The Independent article?
Johann Hari had an agenda. He came here with the intention of writing an article called the ‘Dark Side of Dubai’ so he wasn’t looking for anything except negative opinions. During our conversation I told him many positive things but he left those points out. Every person he found to speak to was an extreme case: the drunk expatriate, the homeless expatriate, the lazy expatriate… I don’t buy it; it is not representative of this country as a whole.
Why did you write a reply in the same newspaper?
I wrote a retort pointing out that Britain also has a dark side. It wasn’t in any way disrespectful to Britain, a country I love. But it was a way of showing that you cannot just write up an entire article based on negative points and generalise. I pointed out that I could go to Britain and interview poor or homeless people in London and I could call it ‘The Dark Side Of Britain’. What will that do for anybody? It’s cheap journalism. But I respect The Independent for allowing me to expose one of its own journalists.
And then Hari criticised you for not addressing his criticisms.
Yes, but for the last two years I’ve written about human rights, labour rights, children’s rights, women’s rights and environmental issues in the UAE. The fact is that we are a 37-year-old country that had one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world one or two generations ago. It needs time to develop and I know it should happen faster, but you can’t expect everything to happen at once.
You touched on the issue of trade unions…
When you are a minority in a country and you start implementing unplanned moves with regards to labour, you could potentially harm yourself and so you have to be careful. I was watching the BBC this morning and it said that Britain was a country of one million immigrants. One million immigrants in a country of 60 million citizens – the UAE has 700,000 citizens and five million immigrants. Just keep in mind this ratio and how things can go wrong. We must tread carefully with regards to labour reforms.
Your main point seemed to be that Dubai is basically a tolerant haven in a troubled region.
Yes. At the height of turbulent moments in the Middle East, the UAE has been a sanctuary for people. During the Iran/Iraq war, Iranians and Iraqis were working together in Dubai; when the Indians and Pakistanis had problems they were colleagues over here. This is an example for everybody to follow. It’s the same for Syrians and Lebanese, Sunnis and Shias, Hindus and Christians… we are so proud of this. We have also advanced women’s rights; we have women ministers, and we have women in our parliament. Yes it’s not all democratic but we don’t have to import other systems. We don’t discriminate, and we’re very proud of this. I think you will make progress here no matter what nationality you are. Of course, things are not ideal – but we believe in progress and progress will continue.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a Dubai-based columnist for The National newspaper. His columns have also appeared in The Financial Times, The Independent and The Hindu