How is the UAE using Dubai Expo to whitewash human rights violations


Whitewashing is an infamous practice used by governments to exploit media attention and distract the public from human rights violations and abusive practices. 

This tactic has been widely used by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to conceal its systemic human rights violations. The UAE government has indeed undertaken repeated efforts over the years to whitewash its reputation. The 2020 Dubai Expo, which started on October 1, 2021, is the latest in a long series of investments aimed at distracting attention from the massive abuses that still take place in this country. 

By hosting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai, the UAE government showcased all its pomp, with grand ceremonies and settings, sending back to the world an image of the country as modern and cutting-edge to attract tourists, but especially foreign investments. 

The event, which will be held over the course of six months, with 192 States reportedly participating, is intended to promote a new reputation for the UAE abroad, and relaunch the economy after the pandemic of Covid-19. However, the reality in the country is quite different.

The UAE systematically violates its international commitments to human rights. The country conceals these violations by making use of the whitewashing strategy, a practice that entails shifting the attention away from human rights violations that give a bad image and a bad reputation to the territory.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, the government has tightened measures against human rights activists, political opponents, and journalists, extremely reducing the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and assembly. Peaceful demonstrators, human rights defenders, and government critics are routinely arrested, subjected to unfair trials and acts of torture. In addition, UN Human Rights Experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists ​​have been systematically denied access to the country, for fear that they may report on the actual rough situation in the country. The government also implements strict surveillance and censorship of communication and media leading to self-censorship by UAE residents and institutions.

In light of such pervasive abuses, in a recent resolution passed on September 15, 2021,  the EU Parliament has urged UAE to free several “human rights defenders, political activists and other peaceful dissidents” imprisoned in the country. The resolution also incited EU member states to boycott the Expo 2020 in Dubai by withdrawing their sponsorship, “in order to signal their disapproval of the human rights violations in the UAE”. 

Another major human rights issue in the UAE concerns the condition of foreign workers. Most of them come to the UAE through recruitment agencies, as part of the sponsorship system (so-called “kafala” system) that ties their residency status to their jobs and lends their employers disproportionate power over them. Although the system has started some reforms in the past years, it still opens the door to many trafficking and abuse-related issues, such as passport withhold and substandard working conditions. In addition, laborers in the UAE are barred from unionization and have few protections, often working long hours for little pay.

Against this backdrop, the UAE has been accused of a lack of transparency after the World Expo offered conflicting figures for work-related deaths during the construction of the fair’s facilities. Later the management of the world’s fair apologized and described the initial figure of five as a “mistake.” Authorities had refused for months to publicly provide any information on construction-related fatalities, injuries, or coronavirus infections in the run-up to the fair, despite repeated requests from journalists and human rights groups. Only after the passing of the aforementioned European Parliament resolution did the authorities admit to the construction site incidents. The resolution also cited the UAE’s ​​“inhumane practices against foreign workers” as a reason for EU states to boycott the Expo.

As declared by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “the UAE authorities are using Dubai Expo 2020 to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its systemic human rights violations”. In this vein, Expo 2020 represents another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself and its human rights records on the world stage. 

The UAE government has undertaken various efforts over the years to whitewash its reputation and divert the attention of the international community from its human rights record. The government’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy explicitly referred to these efforts, including as a stated goal “to establish [the UAE’s] reputation as a modern and tolerant country.” Hence, the Dubai Expo is just one other example of many investments that the UAE made to appear as a country of cross-cultural dialogue and tolerance committed to educational and cultural projects. These investments included the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts and hosting global events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi.

Sadly, Dubai Expo 2020 should be an important global cultural event built on the free exchange of ideas. As announced by the Bureau International des Expositions – the organization in charge of overseeing world fairs – the theme of this world’s fair is “connecting minds, creating the future.” This theme is “based on the belief that bringing the world together can catalyse an exchange of new perspectives,” said the Bureau.

Expo’s theme and message are in open contrast to the UAE’s dismal record on human rights, also considering that this event comes at a time when the Emirati regime is exacerbating its war crimes against the Yemeni people. The “exchange of new perspectives” is apparently not possible in a country that totally denies freedom of expression and represses any voices in contrast with the government. 

As such, “Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

To counter the narrative of “tolerance” and “openness” that the UAE claims to uphold, human rights groups launched an Alternative human rights Expo. The alternative expo took place online, with artists from the Middle East raising awareness through their voices on rights abuses in the Emirates, standing in solidarity with imprisoned activists. Human rights activists highlighted that while international celebrities were attending the opening ceremony, many prominent voices were silenced, such as that of the Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, currently serving a 10-year sentence in jail for his calls to reform the country. Leading international academic and cultural institutions remained silent about the imprisonment of Mansoor, so implicitly adhering to the abuses of the UAE government. 

Ultimately, the Dubai Expo is another tool in the UAE’s campaign to “whitewash” its poor human rights records. Under international human rights instruments, both governments and businesses have a general responsibility to protect, defend and uphold human rights. They should therefore counter efforts by UAE authorities to whitewash their abuses, and not contribute to them. Countries participating in the Expo should therefore prevent the UAE’s attempts to whitewash abuses. In doing so, they should urge the UAE to release all political prisoners and open the country to the scrutiny by independent researchers and observers.

Ultimately, in light of the above described systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the UAE government and the repeated use of the whitewashing strategy to cover up these abuses, in accordance with their human rights obligations, the countries should use their presence in the Expo to publicly raise their concerns and ask for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners and human rights defenders.