DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—For over a decade, authorities turned a blind eye to the Cyclone Club—which was described by regulars as a Disneyland for men—despite the country’s apparent adherence to austere Islamic legal codes.
Indeed, in its heyday entrance tickets to one of the biggest brothels in Dubai were given an official stamp from the local Department of Tourism.
Today however, the building which once housed the notorious Cyclone Club has been gutted and replaced by a family-friendly restaurant—in a sign of a growing crackdown by Dubai authorities on prostitution and human trafficking.
In January, the Central Criminal Court in the capital of Abu Dhabi issued a landmark ruling whereby seven men were given life sentences for human trafficking crimes and six others were given 10-year sentences.
In addition, Dubai courts in February, tried two human trafficking cases, and an eight-man people-smuggling ring was busted in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.
“We have noticed a lot more awareness and big changes in understanding about trafficking from the police and courts,” said Sarah Shuhail, who runs a shelter for women who have escaped forced prostitution, in comments to local media.
Shuhail’s organization, Ewaa Shelters for Women and Children, has been open for little more than a year, and is already planning on opening two new shelters in the emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah.
In 2009, the U.S. State Department downgraded the United Arab Emirates to Tier 2, on its list of countries cited for their records on trafficking.
With the threat of U.S. sanctions against the U.A.E. should it be downgraded to Tier 3 (the lowest rating), the emirates have become keen to tackle the problem head on. This includes censuring foreign media reports that point out the country’s weak performance in dealing with trafficking.
Two weeks ago, an official from the Ministry of Interior slammed a Human Rights Watch report about its record on dealing with trafficking as “sensationalist” and “factually-incorrect.”
The U.A.E. is a recent signatory of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the official said, and has set up a task force of trained prosecutors to tackle the issue.
The Ewaa shelter is financed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi crown prince.