September 2, 2021
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo
Minister of Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmés
Belgium Ambassador to the UAE Peter Claes
Dear Prime Minister De Croo, Minister Wilmés, and Ambassador Claes
We write to you as a coalition of organizations deeply concerned by your participation in the UAE Dubai Expo, a six-month event that begins this October. By participating in the UAE Dubai Expo, you risk endorsing a horrifying UAE record with regards to legal discrimination against women and violations of women’s rights. The lead organizer of the UAE Dubai Expo, Expo Commissioner-General Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, has been accused of sexual assault, and Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been personally involved in the kidnapping and detention of his own adult daughters. Not only that, but UAE military interventions in Yemen have contributed to the deaths of thousands of Yemeni women, with millions more Yemeni women facing malnourishment and lack of access to basic reproductive health care as a result.
We urge you to withdraw from the UAE Dubai Expo and join us in publicly demanding that UAE authorities cease their violations of women’s rights and implement major reforms. We call on you to demand accountability for UAE’s perpetrators and demonstrate your commitment to women’s rights and equality by pledging to boycott the UAE Dubai Expo until the UAE acts to fully address its brutal violations against women. These violations include the kidnapping and hostage-taking of Saudi and Emirati women and women’s rights activists, sexual assault of British national Caitlin McNamara without the accused perpetrator being investigated or held accountable, systemic discrimination against women, exploitation of women migrant workers, sex trafficking and sexual slavery, and war crimes that have impacted the lives of women and their communities in Yemen.
It is time for the international community to hold UAE’s rulers accountable for these crimes and human rights violations. Please withdraw from the UAE’s Dubai Expo and demand that the UAE monarchy take the following immediate steps to address its horrible record on women’s rights:
— UAE rulers must investigate and prosecute UAE Dubai Expo Commissioner-General Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, who has been accused of sexually assaulting British national Caitlin McNamara: Sheikh Nahyan, who is a UAE government minister, faces documented accusations of sexual assault and entrapment of McNamara while she was working in his so-called”Ministry of Tolerance.”
— UAE rulers must immediately and unconditionally free UAE princesses Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa: Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and all involved parties must be investigated and held accountable for repeatedly abducting and holding captive Maktoum’s adult daughters, and for Maktoum’s campaign of threats and intimidation against his former wife, Princess Haya, who fled from Dubai and was granted refuge in the UK.
— UAE rulers must be held accountable for extraditing women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to Saudi Arabia. Since her extradition, she has been imprisoned, tortured, and persecuted in Saudi Arabia’s broken courts.
— UAE rulers must release all women detained for criticizing the UAE regime and be held accountable for the medical neglect and torture of other detainees in the UAE such as Maryam AlBalushi, Amina AlAlabdouli and Ali Abdulnour.
— UAE rulers must abolish the discriminatory kafala foreign labor system and free the “thousands of migrant workers” trapped in the UAE with stateless children: UAE must abolish the kafala system which facilitates human trafficking and other abuses against vulnerable foreign workers and abolish archaic laws which criminalize extramarital relations and discriminate against women.
— UAE rulers must abolish UAE’s male guardianship laws and all laws which discriminate against and endanger women: UAE’s male guardianship laws continue to grant UAE men control of and ownership over adult female family members, including requiring male guardian permission to marry. Laws in the UAE still permit marital rape, complicate divorces for women, discriminate against women passing citizenship to their children, and fail to hold perpetrators of abuse and violence accountable.
— UAE rulers must end human trafficking and sexual slavery: Dubai has been referred to as a major center of human trafficking and sexual slavery. UAE authorities must make serious efforts to end trafficking and sexual slavery, including holding perpetrators accountable and protecting rather than punishing women who reporting sexual trafficking to authorities.
We urge you to withdraw from the UAE Dubai Expo and publicly call on UAE rulers to take the steps outlined above to end their record of women’s rights violations, hold perpetrators in the UAE monarchy accountable, and abolish all legal discrimination against women.
Please find below additional information on each of the above areas of concern:
UAE Dubai Expo Organizer Sheikh Nahyan Faces Accusations of Sexual Assault: As reported in The Guardian, in 2019, Caitlin McNamara was summoned by UAE official Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak AlNayhan for a meeting. McNamara worked for the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance at the time, and was led to believe the meeting was work related. Sheikh Nayhan’s official chauffeur picked her up and took her through security to his personal villa. McNamara stated: “I was repeatedly and increasingly violently assaulted. The violence wasn’t just physical. I was trapped, reliant on his driver to get me through the checkpoints that led back to safety.” She explained Sheikh Nahyan’s abuse of his power over her to end her job, her accommodations and her exit visa out of the country. McNamara has struggled to get justice, as lawyers informed her that no individual can file a case in UAE’s dictator courts against a member of the royal family and government minister and expect consideration in an independent and impartial manner. McNamara reported feeling that her rape was just seen as “collateral damage” for the international companies and organizations that continued to pursue contracts and deals with Sheikh Nayhan.
UAE rulers’ international kidnapping and intimidation campaigns: Demand justice and full freedom for Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa. In March of 2020, a high court of the United Kingdom found that UAE’s Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, organized the illegal kidnapping and forcible return of two of his adult daughters on three occasions back to Dubai, and was guilty of intimidating and harassing his former wife, who was granted refuge with their child in the UK. The judge stated “with respect to both Shamsa and Latifa… following their return to the custody of the father’s family they have been deprived of their liberty.” Sheikha Shamsa has not been seen in public since her attempted escape in 2000, Latifa was recently seen in Spain in the summer of 2021, shortly after she leaked a video revealing that she was being held hostage by her father in Dubai. It is unknown whether she is truly free to leave the UAE or is still under the control of her father, Dubai’s ruler.
UAE persecution of women’s rights activists and detainees: Demand accountability for the UAE’s unlawful extraction and treatment of detainees and women’s rights activists. In March of 2018, the UAE unlawfully and forcibly returned Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to Saudi Arabia, where she was later detained, tortured and charged with terrorism for her women’s rights activism. In 2019, the UN and human rights groups called on UAE authorities to release Alia Abdulnoor and Maryam AlBalushi. Pleas were ignored, and Abdulnoor died while in custody. Her family reported that she had been forced by authorities to sign a document refusing treatment for cancer. Maryam AlBalushi leaked messages from a UAE prison about being subject to severe torture and harassment and in March of 2020, AlBalushi attempted suicide. She was later held in prolonged solitary confinement and struck with additional charges of “damaging the UAE’s reputation” for contacting international organizations pleading for help.
UAE’s need for dramatic women’s rights reforms: The UAE is in dire need of comprehensive women’s rights reforms. These reforms must include an end to systemic discrimination against women, including with respect to divorce, child custody, and inheritance. The UAE’s male male guardianship system must be fully abolished. Laws must formally criminalize marital rape and physical discipline of female family members. The law must decriminalize extramarital sex, and UAE authorities must stop imprisoning victims of rape. Perpetrators of sexual assault or violence against women must be held accountable. Finally, UAE authorities must work to immediately close legal loopholes which currently allow reduced sentences for men who murder female family members.
UAE’s need for migrant labor reforms: The UAE must abolish its Kafala labor sponsorship system, which traps foreign and migrant workers, including domestic workers who are primarily women, with abusive employers and also facilitates human trafficking and sexual slavery in Dubai. According to the U.S. State Department, “employers in the UAE continue to exercise unilateral control over foreign workers’ movements.” An official of the UAE recently stated that “thousands of migrant women were entrapped in the country” due to laws which require their imprisonment after they give birth to children born out of wedlock[SB1] . In addition to entrapping mothers, this discriminatory law often renders these children stateless and unable to register for identity documents or receive basic services.
End human trafficking and sexual slavery in the UAE: Authorities must investigate and prosecute all human traffickers and work to shut down all establishments where forced prostitution and sexual slavery occur. Authorities must work to establish protection centers for all victims, regardless of their identification status and ensure victims are not jailed or charged for prostitution, absconding from their employers, or having sex outside of marriage.
End UAE’s war in Yemen and address the devastating consequences for women: The Saudi/UAE-led war on Yemen has caused widespread economic collapse and food insecurity, and past reports have indicated that 85,000 children have died of starvation, and that two million children under five and 1.1 million pregnant women and new mothers have been acutely malnourished. Airstrikes and the blockade have devastated the country’s healthcare system, and approximately six million women of childbearing age now lack access to basic reproductive health care. The devastation of the country’s education system as exacerbated by the war has contributed to a reversal in decades of progress in gender equality, with 36% of the Yemen’s girls now unable to attend school. The UAE must immediately end its war on Yemen and provide funds for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.
Women in the UAE are still treated as subordinate to men under the law, in the household, in governance, and in the workforce. They continue to be punished for being victims of violence, rape, human trafficking, and sexual slavery while perpetrators face little consequence. Perpetrators of violence against women include major government officials including the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum. When governments routinely violate the rights of individuals under their jurisdiction, including their own daughters, it is the responsibility of the global community to help advance a solution.
We urge you to demand justice for women in the UAE and to refuse to become complicit in a UAE Dubai Expo that risks amounting to little more than a propaganda campaign for the UAE monarchy. We urge you to take a stand for women’s rights and boycott the UAE Dubai Expo until the UAE’s rulers fully address each of these significant human rights concerns.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights
Feminist Majority Foundation
Just Foreign Policy
MENA Rights Group
Project Break the Cycle
Rethinking Foreign Policy
Women Watch Afrika
Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation