Dubai – A City of Contrasts

rom April 19, 2012 through April 29, 2012, Retired North Carolina Special Superior Court Chief Judge (Business Court) Ben F. Tennille and I had the honor and very interesting experience of traveling to Dubai, the commercial capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to “consult” with selected members of the Iraqi Judiciary on subjects related to the administration of “Business Courts” and the management of “Business Litigation” in Iraq.  Dubai was chosen by us for both personal and professional reasons which I will explain below.  Suffice it to say that I told Judge Tennille that if the representatives of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the State Department with whom we were working wanted to know why we were firm in our position that Dubai was the ideal venue for our “consultation” as opposed to Baghdad and as it turns out Cairo, to tell them “Judge Platt still thinks that there are weapons of mass destruction near Baghdad and he further believes that particularly in light of his ethnic and religious heritage that we should avoid at all costs even the appearance of involvement in the current Egyptian elections and the “Arab Spring” generally.  These two pre-textual positions worked and we were dispatched to Dubai.

Dubai is a city of contrasts which are immediately noticeable.  45 years ago Dubai was a fishing village.  Today, it has more skyscrapers than Manhatten, including the tallest building in the world. Unfortunately, many of these commercial and mixed use buildings today stand in various states of incomplete construction which has been interrupted by the worldwide recession.  25% of the crains in the world are located in Dubai and are being utilized in the construction of these buildings whose architecture can best be described as “futuristic”.  However, many of these crains are at a standstill awaiting a fresh infusion of investor capital liberated from the throes of the global recession in order to finish the construction of the city they were brought there to help create.  There are signs that economic relief is on the way.


The ruling classes of Emirati are quite proud of their city, its beauty and their wealth which is on ostentatious display in selected parts of the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the political capital city. One of their “malls” which makes our malls look like strip shopping centers contains a “ski resort” which is full size with real snow brought in.  You can watch the skiers from a restaurant in the mall. Their are also numerous waterfalls, huge fountains and other water inspired displays throughout the malls, as well as the city itself which is in a desert irrigated for both functionality and aesthetic effect.

Those displays of beauty and wealth are not located in the neighborhoods which house the laborers whose hard work and sweat built the more impressive commercial and tourist zones of the City of Dubai and still provide the labor which keeps it pristine and functional. These neighborhoods largely still resemble the fishing village Dubai used to be. The residences and commercial establishments and structures appear to be in their original state and are best described as humble (residences) and honky tonk (commercial).  The contrast with the financial and commercial sections of the city is glaring.

All of this having been noticed, the appearance and role of women in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq  and most of the Middle East provides by far the starkest contrasts especially to the untrained eyes and the minds of those of us comparatively unschooled in the religious doctrinal and cultural dictates of traditional and modern Islam.  Judge Tennille and I were boarded at The Ritz Carlton Hotel, a Five Star Hotel located in the Financial Centre of Dubai.  In the lobby and restaurants of that hotel and other similar venues approximately 50% of the women were cloaked in burkhas and veiled so that only their eyes were visible.  The other 50% wore clothing which would not be noticeable at all in a hotel lobby or a shopping center in the United States. Only in the bars were there no burkhas.

The 21 Iraqi judges who we were there to “consult” with were all men. Women cannot be judges in Baghdad. They can be “Public Prosecutors”.  One woman, a “Public Prosecutor”, accompanied the 21 Iraqi judges.  She was allowed to participate fully in our program, including those parts where we sought to be interactive.  In fact, she contributed very positively to the program without appearing to be inhibited in doing so at all.  For this, in my mind, she deserves a great deal of credit because, notwithstanding the fact that her Islamic faith and that of the judges she accompanied allowed her to fully participate professionally, including asking questions and commenting on our discussions, she was not allowed to, in any way, socialize or talk with her male colleagues nor with Judge Tennille and I during breaks in the program and during meals.

This translated visually and audibly into coffee breaks where she would walk into the room and sit at a table, which would result in everyone else heading to other tables.  It resulted in her sitting alone or at one end of a long table for meals while the men gathered at a separate table or at the opposite end of a large table.  Judge Tennille and I were specifically oriented that we should not, for diplomatic reasons, attempt to, in any way, physically contact this or any woman, including shaking her hand nor should we attempt to engage in any conversation with this or any Muslim woman except in a purely professional programmatic context.

In the face of these two worlds of commercial affluence, even opulence, and traditional Islam which co-exist, sometimes I gather uneasily, Judge Tennille and I through the good offices of the U.S. Department of Commerce working with the State Department were transported to Dubai to consult with the Iraqi Judiciary on the role that “Business Courts” can play in providing the stability of laws and institutions necessary to compete effectively for foreign investment.  In doing so, the issues we faced, in some ways, bore a remarkable resemblance to the issues faced here when specialized business courts were proposed in many of the states in the U.S., including Maryland.   How and why will be the subject of a future column.

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