Tuesday, December 18, 2012

18-Dec-12: Astronomical financial power and what it lets some get away with

World-class glitz: Dubai [Image Source]
We offer a little more commentary here about the almost-entirely-unreported Kafkaesque nightmare that overtook the life of a distinguished South African doctor in the United Arab Emirates in August and has continued on a daily basis since then.

First a note about where it's happening. There's nothing especially new about the tyranny of the numerous family-owned businesses that constitute the UAE. Democracy is of course unknown in their region. In its place, what they have - and this is fundamental to understanding how the things that happen keep happening there - is oil. Oil, and oceans of money. For those individuals and corporations ready to sell whatever has to be sold in order to feed at the trough of the UAE's riches, the deal is a clear and simple one: live by the rules, keep your mouth closed and brain in neutral, and you too can cash in.

This brings us to Qantas. We're big fans of the Australian airline. And we don't mean to suggest that its management has sold out in the same way that a long, long line of other businesses have. But it's a fact that Qantas recently announced a 10-year alliance with the Dubai-owned airline, Emirates, under which Qantas will treat Dubai as its hub for all its Australia-Europe routes, and in other ways blend its operations into a harmonious Qantas/Emirates tie-up that they're calling "the world's leading airline partnership"

Perhaps it will become that. But overall it's not a universally felt sentiment. There has been significant controversy in the Australian media and among Australia's worried Jews, as well as very public opposition to the deal from a group of Qantas investors that includes the company's former CEO and CFO. The Australian government's competition regulator is reported to be issuing a ruling on the deal in the next week.

The less glitzy Abu Dhabi Criminal Court

Now to the vexing case of Prof. Cyril Karabus that we have been following for some months. See 26-Sep-12: Dubai, Dubai, Dubai15-Oct-12: Back to Dubai: Australian travelers might want to factor this report into their plans21-Oct-12: Update on Prof. Cyril Karabus and his ongoing nightmare in United Arab Emirates5-Nov-12: Travel update: Additional things you might want to know about transiting through Dubai13-Dec-12: Report from Dubai: making Kafka proud13-Dec-12: Kafka would certainly be proud: Update on the doctor arrested at Dubai airport].

Here's the one paragraph summary: 
A frail professional man of 78, whose life and distinguished medical career has been dedicated to treating and saving the lives of desperately ill children, was arrested while transiting through the UAE in August 2012 on a private trip. The officials there informed him and his shocked family that he is charged with a number of criminal offences arising from hospital treatment of a Yemeni child more than a decade before. Multiple appearances and some months later, the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court eventually granted bail. However he remains stuck in the Emirates and forbidden from leaving. He and his lawyers make appearance after appearance in court, and the prosecutors repeatedly say they cannot find their evidence file or key parts of it. The last such hearing was five days ago [our report] when the official Abu Dhabi agency that holds the medical files on the deceased child simply refused to hand them over. Evidently, this makes it impossible for Prof. Karabus to prove his innocence and leave that appalling place. It's truly Kafka-esque. And it can happen to others (and has). 
A few weeks too late, we have just seen a report that throws some interesting new light on the role of the UAE-half of "the world's leading airline partnership". 

In an article entitled "The Abu Dhabi nightmare continues for Dr Karabus", Daily Maverick journalist Rebecca Davis writes
South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has been particularly vocal in lobbying for Karabus’s release. In a statement released on Monday, it criticised the handling of the case by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation: “We have learned that the South African embassy has done almost nothing to assist Professor Karabus...”
The TAC has also targeted Emirates Airline for criticism, as Karabus was flying Emirates when arrested. “We are astonished that the airline failed to warn Professor Karabus that he was wanted in the UAE,” it said. [Prof. Karabus' daughter] says that at the beginning of their journey in Toronto, airline staff informed them that there was some form of security alert attached to her father’s name, but would not elaborate, and certainly gave no sense of its severity. Sarah says that her family asked Emirates if it would consider funding tickets for them to visit Karabus in Abu Dhabi as a goodwill gesture, but it declined. When the Daily Maverick approached Emirates Airline for comment, it was told: “This is a legal issue being dealt with by the relevant authorities and does not involve Emirates.” [more]
If we were Qantas shareholders, we would certainly want to take this information on board before locking the national flag-carrier into what is probably the most significant transaction in its history. 

Qantas aircraft [Image Source: The news.com.au website]
As Qantas travelers, we're seriously uncomfortable at the idea that a great company and world-class airline is hooking up with a business that's wholly owned by the government of Dubai

By no stretch of the imagination a democracy, Dubai is itself wholly owned and operated by the Al Maktoum clan for about 450 years. A clansmen, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is prime minister and vice president of the United Arab Emirates, constitutional monarch of Dubai and the owner of the world's largest private yacht (cost: $300 million). Also, as Wikipedia notes, the father of 23 "officially acknowledged" children, and a dominant commercial figure whom Forbes magazine called "the founder, part owner and lead visionary of virtually every major local company, including Emirates Airlines".

The scandalous treatment of the Karabus family includes them having to shoulder serious financial expenses for accommodation, travel, lawyers and the like. The refusal of Emirates to make the goodwill gesture mentioned in the previous para is in striking contrast to the case of several Palestinian Arabs from Gaza who were allegedly "stranded" for political reasons in Dubai airport last year. An Abu Dhabi newspaper report at the time said "Emirates Airline are providing financial support for them". Plainly, being one of the world's astronomically wealthy and as well as head of your own private state means you can make decisions like these without ever having to justify yourself. 

We're left with no real questions for His Highness. But as for Qantas management, does anyone believe they have thought through these issues?

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