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Steven I. Platt: A business trip to Dubai opens some eyes

From April 19 through April 29, 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, 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. 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 that are immediately noticeable. Forty-five years ago, Dubai was a fishing village. Today, it has more skyscrapers than Manhattan, including the tallest building in the world.

Unfortunately, many of these commercial and mixed-use buildings today stand in various states of incomplete construction, interrupted by the worldwide recession. Twenty-five percent of the construction cranes in the world are located in Dubai and are being used in the construction of these buildings, which feature architecture that can best be described as futuristic.

However, many of these cranes are at a standstill awaiting a fresh infusion of investor capital liberated from the throes of the recession. There are signs that economic relief is on the way.

Indoor ski resort

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 Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the political capital city. One of their “malls,” which make ours look like strip shopping centers, contains a ski resort that is full size with real snow brought in. You can watch the skiers from a restaurant in the mall.

There 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 that house the laborers whose hard work and sweat built the more impressive commercial and tourist zones of Dubai and still provide the labor that 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 stayed at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in the financial center of Dubai. In the lobby and restaurants of that hotel and other similar venues, approximately 50 percent of the women were cloaked in burqas and veiled so that only their eyes were visible. The other 50 percent wore clothing that would not be out of place at all in a hotel lobby or a shopping center in the United States. Only in the bars were there no burqas.

‘Public prosecutors’

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 socialize or talk with her male colleagues nor with Judge Tennille and me in any way during breaks in the program and during meals.

During coffee breaks, when she would walk into the room and sit at a table, everyone else headed to other tables. She sat 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 physically contact this or any woman, including shaking her hand, nor should we attempt to engage in any conversation with this or any other Muslim woman except in a purely professional program 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.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a regular column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com.