Zack Shahin, an American, was arrested in Dubai in 2008 and held in isolation for months on end.  Shahin still remains in jail on what appear to be spurious charges, with no trial date in sight.  All this is happening in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which purport to be the forward-looking showcase of Arab capacity for liberalism and entrepreneurial flair.

Before the current financial crisis the UAE attracted thousands of Western investors and experts.  Dubai in particular started growing into a glittering metropolis of high-rise towers, expensive hotels, and top-tier shops.  It became Arabia’s Las Vegas (minus the gambling and showgirls), a financial Disneyland without the fun.  In early 2008, however, the property bubble burst, and the ruling family needed scapegoats.  In the ensuing global downturn Dubai was threatened with financial collapse.  Disagreements over foreign-worker labor laws and human rights caused the termination of free-trade negotiations with the United States.

For domestic consumption, those same expatriates who built Dubai’s economy and helped enrich its rulers were now presented as predatory speculators to be blamed for the downturn.  Shahin, a former top executive of Devaar Development, was an iconic victim of the new trend.  Held in isolation for 13 months and denied U.S. consular assistance—in violation of international treaties to which the Emirates are a party—in April 2009 he was finally charged with embezzlement.  There is no indication when he will be tried, however.  He says that, while incommunicado, he was tortured and forced to sign papers in Arabic that he did not understand.

After investigating one misdemeanor charge against Shahin for the past three years, the presiding judge belatedly concluded that he may not have jurisdiction over the case and sent it back to the public prosecutor.  This maneuver will now enable the prosecutor to apply a new law that did not exist at the time of the arrest, under which Shahin can be designated a “public official” and (if ever tried and convicted) face a sentence of up to 20 years.  Shahin has twice been “released” on bail, and then immediately rearrested.  Dozens of other non-American foreigners have been treated in a similar vein.  Tourists have sometimes fared far worse, such as British visitor Lee Bradley Brown, beaten to death in jail following his arrest for allegedly using abusive language.

The U.S. government has sent at least three formal diplomatic notes expressing concerns about Shahin’s treatment, but they remain unanswered.  His case was raised with UAE officials by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit last January and by other American diplomats, but all have been rebuffed.  Letters to the UAE ambassador in Washington from both Ohio senators and from former Rep. Deborah Pryce have never been answered.

The State Department has yet to make a public statement about Shahin’s predicament, however.  The U.S. government has taken a far keener interest in the legal problems of two foreigners—Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia and Liu Xiaobo in China—than in the ongoing predicament of a U.S. citizen.

In these uncertain times for the region, the Emirates are vulnerable.  Looking at the tension in neighboring Bahrain, its rulers are understandably uneasy.  They, too, are a minority in their own country—a mere fifth of the population—and they, too, suspect the impermanence of their wealth and power.  Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoums in particular provide vivid evidence of Carnegie’s dictum that “there is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.”  They control an economically weakened and politically fragile Middle Eastern autocracy.  The Emirates need robust encouragement from Washington to clean up their legal act and to stop victimizing foreigners in general, and Americans like Shahin in particular, through corrupt judicial processes.