There is a ridiculous scene in the Ridley Scott movie Kingdom of Heaven in which Orlando Bloom's character, Balian de Ibelin, a European nobleman, rescues the primitive Middle Easterners who have been living in the region for thousands of years apparently without the need for water. The westerner miraculously digs a water well and shows our ancestors how water is extracted, even though he places the lower level duct on top of the higher one, thereby wasting all the precious water. It was only one detail in a movie so full of gaffes that one blogger was moved to comment: "There's more historical accuracy in The Lord of the Rings, which took place in a world that never existed."
Similarly, in the past few weeks a barrage of critical articles has been published by just about any western publication that wants to claim a piece of the Dubai-bashing prize. Respected, or so we thought, newspapers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and their British counterparts have sent journalists on short holidays to Dubai during which they are magically able to uncover hidden stories that local journalists fail to see.
For example, The New York Times published an article claiming that Dubai "has long played rebellious younger brother" to Abu Dhabi – as if that were scientific fact rather than unfounded opinion. The paper half-informs us that "Abu Dhabi has offered assistance only to its own banks", forgetting to mention that the UAE Central Bank, which is mostly financed by our capital, Abu Dhabi, has set up a Dh50 billion ($13.6 billion) fund to boost liquidity in all banks in the country – including those in Dubai. The UAE, like the US, is a federation, in which each emirate has its own budget in addition to the federal budget. California also has its own governor and its own budget: the same logic applies to each of the seven emirates.
The case of the Israeli female tennis player and part-time soldier Shahar Peer is another example of western newspapers' misrepresentation of Dubai. The laws of the UAE stipulate that no Israeli citizen can be granted entry into the country except under the banner of international organisations. Israel has previously taken part in UN-sponsored events such the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in September 2003.
The tennis case more resembles an incident in November 2006, when the Israeli postal service delegation was refused permission to attend the Universal Postal Union summit in Dubai. A UAE government spokesman pointed out at the time that "officials lacked entry visas and had not made an advance application to enter the country to attend the conference". However, because it was a UN event, the UAE acted swiftly and invited the delegation to return once their papers were in order.
Similarly, the UAE has agreed to let in the male Israeli tennis player Andy Ram under a "special permit" because there was enough time to complete his visa process and protocol, which seems not to have been the case with his female counterpart. The simple fact is that there are procedures to entering a sovereign state that must be respected. Citizens of a country participating in an international event must inform their hosts in advance of their arrival, not just show up at the airport – especially when there are no diplomatic relations between these countries.
The audacity of some Los Angeles Times columnists on this issue is beyond belief. One asked: "What would the WTA do if a tournament in India said no to Muslim players, or a South African event preferred to say no to African American players?" – implying contemptible anti-Semitism. Ms Peer was not denied entry because of her ethnicity or religion: that would be despicable. She was rejected because she had no proper visa. The same would apply to an Israeli Muslim Arab citizen, for example, or a citizen of any non-GCC state.
Sadly, this sort of ignorance continues to seep into the US public domain. Last year this same distressed newspaper sent here an ignorant woman who came up with an outrageous story in which she referred to Dubai as "repulsive" and "revolting". Los Angeles Times recently downsized its news staff by 50 per cent by sacking 600 people, and further dismissals are expected soon. With so few staff remaining, no wonder they resort to sensationalist writing to attract readers.
Another interesting development was the criticism of the Dubai International Festival of Literature by writers in The Guardian in Britain, accusing the UAE of banning a book because it included a gay character. The glass-is-half-empty bashers repeatedly emphasised the case of that one specific book, ignoring the 65 other invited writers, who included acclaimed Jewish authors. And in fact, it turns out that not only has the book not been banned, it was never intended to be launched at the Festival in the first place. The whole artificial furore was created by the publishers as a publicity stunt. This could have been established by a couple of phone calls, but some western journalists prefer to bash first and ask questions later. They care only to highlight controversial issues to play on readers' emotions, reminding me of the many one-sided journalists we have here in the region who constantly highlight the negativities in the US and Europe, ignoring the positives.
So the next time you read a Dubai-bashing article in the western press, remember that there is potentially more accuracy in The Lord of the Rings – which took place in a world that never existed.
*Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai.
This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday, February 22nd, 2009