On the surface Dubai seems to encourage westerners. The UAE is one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East. Especially when you consider its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. For those outside the Arab world the UAE appears western friendly. In so far as you can consume alcohol at a local bar, public displays of affection are tolerated (more or less), and rules for women’s attire is far less restrictive than other Arab countries.
But scratch that surface and you quickly discover a culture clash that is both confusing and combustible.
By Nicola Goulding and Phil O’Sullivan, CNN
Dubai — Norwegian interior designer Marte Deborah Dalelv has spoken out after being handed a 16-month prison sentence in Dubai — after she went to police to report she had been raped by a colleague.
The 24-year-old was convicted and sentenced on charges of having unlawful sex, making a false statement and illegal consumption of alcohol.
Her story is dominating the headlines in Norway, and has raised serious questions over the way women who allege sexual assault are treated in the United Arab Emirates.
Dalelv, who had been working at an interior design firm in Qatar since September 2011, told CNN on Saturday how a work trip to Dubai in March with three colleagues turned into a nightmare.
She said she had been out at a bar with her colleagues and friends, and asked a male colleague to walk her to her room when they returned at 3 a.m. to the hotel. She’d asked him to escort her because the hotel was large and confusing, and she didn’t want to be wandering on her own, knowing she’d been drinking, she said.
When they reached a room, she realized it wasn’t hers — but the man then pulled her inside despite her vocal objections, according to Dalelv.
“He dragged me by my purse in, so I thought, ‘OK, I just need to calm the situation down. I will finish my bottle of water, I will sit here and then I will excuse myself and say I feel fine,'” she said.
That was pretty much the last thing she said she remembers before the alleged sexual assault. “I woke up with my clothes off, sleeping on my belly, and he was raping me. I tried to get off, I tried to get him off, but he pushed me back down.”
After someone knocked — the hotel wake-up call — she managed to get dressed and make it downstairs to the hotel reception, Dalelv said. “I called the police. That is what you do. We are trained on that from when we are very young,” she said.
Some 10 or 12 male police officers arrived, but no female police officers were present, she said. Statements were taken from both Dalelv and the alleged rapist.
She was then taken to Bur Dubai police station, she said.
After again giving her version of events to officers, Dalelv said, “They asked me, ‘Are you sure you called the police because you just didn’t like it?’ I said, ‘Well of course I didn’t like it.’ That is when I knew, I don’t think they are going to believe me at all.”
Dalelv says she was taken for an intimate medical exam and tested for alcohol consumption. Her belongings were taken and she was kept in jail for four days, she said, with no explanation as to why.
Dubai police and UAE government officials have not responded to repeated CNN requests for comment.
Dalelv said she managed to call her parents on the third day to tell them she had been raped and ask them to contact the Norwegian Embassy. A day later, a representative from the Norwegian consulate came to the police station and she was released — but her passport was not returned.
A piece of paper with Arabic text was handed to her, she said. An Arabic speaker told her it listed two charges against her: one for sex outside of marriage and the other for public consumption of alcohol. Both are violations of the law in the United Arab Emirates.
It was the first time she was made aware that she faced charges, Dalelv said.
She was allowed out on bail and has been staying since at the Norwegian Seaman’s Center in Dubai.
Subsequently, she said her manager advised her to tell the police it was voluntary sexual intercourse and likely the whole issue would just go away. She followed the advice and in one of the many hearings at the public prosecutor’s office, she made a statement saying it was voluntary.
Dalelv was then charged with making a false statement.
“That was my biggest regret because it wasn’t voluntary. I just thought it would all go away,” she told CNN.
But a representative of Al Mana Interiors, who Dalelv worked for, told CNN that she was not advised by her manager to say the sex was consensual but rather by a police officer, who told her that in Arabic and it was translated into English by her manager.
Dalelv said a month after the rape, while forced to stay in Dubai as the case wound through the legal system, she was fired.
The representative, who declined to be publicly identified, said Dalelv and the Sudanese man she accused — who is married with three children — have both been terminated by Al Mana Interiors for “drinking alcohol at a staff conference that resulted in trouble with the police.”
A statement released late Saturday by Al Mana Interiors spokesman Hani El Korek said the company was sympathetic to Dalelv “during this very difficult situation.” It also said that company representatives were by her side through the initial investigation, spending “days at both the police station and the prosecutor’s office to help win her release.”
“Only when Ms. Dalelv declined to have positive and constructive discussions about her employment status, and ceased communication with her employer, was the company forced to end our relationship with her,” the statement said.
“The decision had nothing to do with the rape allegation, and unfortunately neither Ms. Dalelv nor her attorneys have chosen to contact the company to discuss her employment status.”
The company is owned by Qatari billionaire Wissam Al Mana, who made headlines earlier this year after it was revealed that he has secretly married singer Janet Jackson in 2012.
Dalelv was convicted Tuesday on all three charges and was sentenced to one year in jail for having unlawful sex, three months in jail for making a false statement and one month for illegal consumption of alcohol.
CNN could not immediately confirm what happened to the alleged perpetrator, who was charged with public intoxication and having sex outside of marriage.
Dalelv is scheduled to appear at the court on September 5 to begin the appeal proceedings. Dalelv, who is not allowed to leave the UAE pending the appeal, said her lawyers have instructed her to be prepared to go back into jail while they submit a request for bail while the appeal is ongoing.
As a rule, CNN does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Dalelv went public with her story.
A Facebook page has been set up calling for Dalelv’s release, as well as a petition urging the Norwegian government to take actionon her behalf.
Her conviction may risk wider diplomatic repercussions.
Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Espen Barth Eide called his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, on Friday night to protest Dalelv’s sentencing, a statement from the Norwegian ministry said.
“I emphasized that we believe that the conviction is contrary to fundamental human rights, including conventions that the UAE have officially ratified,” Eide is quoted as saying.
“Norway will continue to do what we can to support her in what is a very difficult situation. Our cooperation with the UAE is strong and good, but I conveyed to my colleague that we are worried that this difficult case may disturb our good relations if we do not reach a good solution in the near future.”
Dalelv told CNN she received a call from Eide on Friday reiterating Norway’s support.
While Dubai has a reputation as a cosmopolitan city that boasts Western influences, where visitors can drink at bars and restaurants and unmarried couples can share hotel rooms, the country adheres to Islamic laws and traditions.
The United Arab Emirates has been heavily criticized by rights groups, which say it condones sexual violence against women. Human Rights Watch has called its record “shameful,” saying it must change the way it handles such cases.
In December 2012, a British woman reported being raped by three men in Dubai. She was found guilty of drinking alcohol without a license and fined.
In January 2010, a British woman told authorities she was raped by an employee at a Dubai hotel. She was charged with public intoxication and having sex outside of marriage.
An Australian woman reported in 2008 that she was drugged and gang-raped. She was convicted of having sex outside marriage and drinking alcohol, and she was sentenced to 11 months in prison.