Is Abu Dhabi the New Sun City?

Would Warner Bros. have signed a flashy deal with the apartheid-era South Africa and given that country its stamp of approval by putting in stores at Sin City?
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Warner Bros. just proudly announced a new joint partnership with the United Arab Emirates region of Abu Dhabi. How proud Time Warner must be over this agreement which The Hollywood Reporter says will be worth billions of dollars over time. They're building movie multiplexes, creating Donald Duck video games, going 50-50 on funding broad appeal blockbusters...oh, and giving legitimacy and a veneer of decency to a government that refuses to sign international human rights treaties, flogs its own people, has a police force that -- according to the Bush administration -- enables the beating of women and treats the "guest workers" that power its economy as de facto slaves.

Would Warner Bros. have signed a flashy deal with the apartheid-era South Africa and given that country its stamp of approval by putting in stores at Sun City? Shouldn't they feel the same about Abu Dhabi? The UAE is trying to use film festivals and "culture" to turn Abu Dhabi into a popular tourist site and put a veneer of decency on a country that is a nightmare for many of the people who live and work there.

Well, Warner Bros. is far from alone. AmFAR, the worthy charity that raises funds to fight AIDS, has sold its soul by agreeing to give legitimacy to Abu Dhabi and its desire to host a major film festival.

AmFAR is holding one of its celebrity-studded charity events there this December, with Sharon Stone cajoling the rich and famous into bidding for lavish gifts and donating the proceeds to AIDS work. (Vacations at Abu Dhabi have been auctioned off in the past.) But morally, if you hold such an event at Abu Dhabi, doesn't it become a zero sum game at best? Should you really make a deal to get desperately needed funds for AIDS in exchange for looking the other way at the slave labor that makes your stay at Abu Dhabi so "pleasant?" Stone deserves credit for her tireless charity work and AmFAR might argue they'd hold an auction in hell if it meant raising money for the important work they'd do. But that's still a deal with the devil.

Here are the facts: Abu Dhabi is a monarchy, and not the quaint kind of Great Britain. The people who are actual citizens may be rich, thanks to oil. But they have no rights. According to the latest State Department annual report on the United Arab Emirates, less than 20 percent of the people who live there even qualify as citizens.

That human rights report from the Bush administration came out in March and details the following, "The government's respect for human rights remained problematic...flogging as judicially sanctioned punishment; arbitrary detention and incommunicado detention, both permitted by law...domestic abuse of women, sometimes enabled by police; trafficking in women and children; legal and societal discrimination against women and non-citizens...common abuse of foreign domestic servants; and severe restrictions on and abuses of workers' rights."

Indeed, workers imported to the UAE have their passports taken away, suffer tremendously and have no outlets -- other than rioting -- to get their voices heard. If they try to leave, they're often threatened and told they won't get any of the money that's due to them.

Some progress has been made: the abuse of little boys as camel jockeys has presumably ended because the international outcry was so loud the last few years. (It's hard to know for sure -- Abu Dhabi refuses to allow human rights observers into the country.) But that's far from the only abuses in the UAE where women are treated like chattel, foreign workers are treated like slaves and gays -- as in Iran -- simply don't exist thanks to repression and laws that outlaw homosexuality. (After one raid on gays in 2005 the Bush administration felt obliged to tell Abu Dhabi that forcing the prisoners to take hormones would break international law.)

The irony of holding an AIDS benefit in a country that outlaws gays can hardly be overstated. The greed of doing business with them is also obvious -- especially business without any guarantees of change or humane treatment of "guest workers" that will invariably be involved in these ventures one way or another. You simply can't work in Abu Dhabi without benefiting from this slave labor.

And what future progress will be made if the rich decide Abu Dhabi -- like Sun City -- is a lovely place to vacation, if celebrities endorse it with their presence while women suffer and die and if multinational corporations do business there while turning a blind eye to abuses? How can anyone justify setting up shop in a country that refuses to sign standard international human rights treaties?

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