Death in the sun – the murky world of Dubai

In April 2011, Lee Brown, an unemployed young handyman from Essex, travelled First Class on Emirates to Dubai and checked in at one of the world’s most expensive hotels, the Burj Al Arab. Allegedly, he threatened a hotel maid while drunk, was arrested and died in prison six days later.

A year later, the case is still “under investigation” and the Foreign Office do not seem to be putting the Dubai authorities under very much pressure to find out exactly what happened to Mr Brown.

The lack of action by the FCO is probably not so surprising. They appear to live in terror of upsetting any important trading partner. However, it is very strange that the story has not been taken up by the tabloids because it seems tailor-made for them. A press that is shell-shocked by the Leveson Inquiry surely have little to fear from doing an in-depth report on this – and it would no doubt be welcomed by Mr Brown’s parents, even if some of the detail did prove a little embarassing.

It seems that Lee Brown’s trip to Dubai was paid for by a local lady he had met on the internet. Now, it is possible to add two and two together and jump to the conclusion that someone in Dubai might not have been very happy about Mr Brown’s arrival. Even if he had been drunk and abusive when he was arrested at the hotel, he did not die of alcohol poisoning because he was in prison for six days before he died. There is credible evidence that he was badly beaten by prison guards and the beatings were the cause of death. Could it be that a local Mr Big (of whom there are many in Dubai) objected to Lee Brown’s interest in the local lady and arranged for him to be arrested on trumped-up charges and beaten up? Maybe things went further than planned. Who knows?

It is also conceivable that the story of the Dubai authorities is reasonably close to the truth – though, quite clearly, their “care” for him in jail was unacceptable. Unfortunately, those in power in Dubai prefer to stick their heads in the sand whenever some problem appears. They do not want to harm the image of Dubai and hope that they can keep promising a report “soon” and that, eventually, people will forget. This is very naive and, if their friends at the FCO really wanted to help them, they should point out that the only way Dubai will ever gain respect in the world is by facing up to issues such as this rather than hiding them.

Dubai has a very curious take on the law and morality. Alcohol is allowed but drunken behaviour is not – yet hotels offer “all you can drink buffets” and then get upset when this leads to the inevitable. Sex is another thorny issue but prostitution is rife – from the very seedy brothels for workers from the Indian sub-continent to the Five Star hotels where leggy Russian blondes ply their trade in a very open and aggressive manner that would not be acceptable in many western countries.

Dubai has had massive growth in the last twenty years but if it ever wants to be taken seriously, it will have to tackle its own demons. Maybe they could start with producing an honest report into what really happened to Lee Brown.


Emirates in Denial – When Spin Doesn't Work

The huge growth in Dubai has been partly fueled by enormous spending on PR. Dubai has had lavish and largely uncritical coverage for years. Now the newsflow has turned and those at the top seem to be lashing out in all directions.

In mid-November, Tim Clark, the President of Emirates made a speech saying people should not underestimate Dubai and that they would be surprised by its resilience and future growth. Either he was being disingenuous or he really did not know how serious the problems of Dubai World were, which would be rather surprising for a man at the top of one of Dubai’s most important companies. Now the airline’s Vice-Chairman, Maurice Flanagan, a man who should surely know better, is complaining that the press is having a “hate Dubai week” and he hopes they will resume “more sensible coverage soon”.

Companies run into trouble in any country but when a company that is owned by, or closely linked to the government makes a bald announcement that it might have trouble settling its debts, it is very serious indeed. If they make this statement just before a national holiday, without any sign of a rescue plan in place, they deserve everything that comes.

Dubai clearly does have a future but, like a drug addict, it needs a sharp dose of reality before it can be saved. Denial will not help the patient.

Whilst one might expect the head of the airline to do his best to make soothing statements at such a difficult time, Mr Clark would do everyone a favour by acknowledging the seriousness of the situation.

Selective Memories on Dubai

Almost every newspaper has been running wise editorials about Dubai’s problems saying that the crisis was foreseeable. As The Sunday Times sagely wrote in its editorial yesterday, “Even casual observers could see this was a boom built on sand.”

The problem is, I cannot remember any of these newspapers warning about Dubai’s excesses at the time. What I can remember is acres of newspaper devoted to PR puffs for tourism and property purchase in Dubai. Did the clever people who write the editorials actually tell their colleagues on the Property and Travel sections that they were helping to flog something that “everyone knew” was dodgy?

Inside Traveller has always warned against property purchase in the UAE, not least because of the complicated legal structure of such purchases. Anyone purchasing an apartment from one of the government-owned or linked companies should also have asked themselves what chance they would have had in a local court had they wished to sue the developer.

Meanwhile, there is bound to be more speculation about the future ownership of Emirates. As one of the few apparently successful assets of Dubai, it has been assumed that Abu Dhabi would want to take control of the airline in exchange for rescuing some of the other businesses. Abu Dhabi’s own airline, Etihad, has already taken over the lead from Emirates in terms of customer service and quality whilst Emirates’ reputation has been going downhill gently for some time. Eitihad openly refer to themselves as “the airline of the UAE”. It could be that Etihad do not really want Emirates anyway – though their government might wish to take some secret holding as a security for other loans. You can be sure that, whatever the legal ownership of Emirates, they will not be doing anything to upset their neighbour for a very long time.