Prostitution is a subject that officials in the United Arab Emirates do not want to talk about. Officially, prostitution does not even exist in the U.A.E., a conservative Muslim federation of autonomous emirates. But in fact, prostitution is a multimillion-dollar industry there. Many of the women involved have traveled or been brought to the U.A.E. from poor countries abroad. And many say they suffer abuse and other difficulties in the emirate's sex trade.
Dubai City, U.A.E.; 2 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In 2002, "Katarina" -- not her real name -- says she was working as an accountant in her native Uzbekistan.
She says she was approached by one of her female supervisors with a blunt offer -- to go to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) for a "few weeks" to have sex with important locals in exchange for $5,000. She agreed. She was 19 years old and a virgin.
In an interview recently in Dubai City, Katarina said she accepted the offer because, at the time, she had no boyfriend in Uzbekistan, her family was poor, morality was not an issue, and it was only a short trip.
Katarina says an Uzbek woman in the U.A.E., working in tandem with her supervisor, got her a temporary work visa and met her at the airport when she arrived in Dubai. Then, in a practice common among these "sponsors," she promptly took Katarina's passport to ensure that she did not run away.
"When I first came here, I was taken to the local leader's [palace]. He just sat with me and did not do anything. He paid 35,000 dirhams [about $9,500] and let me go. The next day we went to another one, but he too did not do anything. He paid 30,000 dirhams. After two months I was brought back [to the first customer], and I lost my virginity," Katarina said.
Katarina says the first two times the men sensed that she was not ready and decided not to be aggressive.
There are an estimated 2,000 prostitutes working in Dubai. Many are brought from abroad, often against their will, and sometimes suffering abuse in the process.
The latest U.S. State Department report on human trafficking, released in June, sharply criticizes the U.A.E. government for failing to tackle the links between prostitution and illegal trafficking. The report says: "The United Arab Emirates is a destination country for men, women, and children trafficked primarily from South and East Asia and the former Soviet Union for the purposes of sexual and labor exploitation."
It adds: "A significant number of foreign women are lured to the U.A.E. under false pretenses and subsequently forced into sexual servitude, primarily by criminals of their own country who take advantage of the U.A.E.'s openness."
Dubai's Cyclone night club is a typical example of the U.A.E.'s flourishing international sex trade. The massive club, owned by an Indian based in London, is known by visitors as the "United Nations of prostitution." On an average night, visitors say, there are possibly as many as 500 prostitutes from as many as two dozen countries -- including Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, Russia, Taiwan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
But Cyclone is hardly the only place in Dubai providing work for prostitutes. You can find them at almost every five-star hotel in the emirate, or even on the streets.
It is a profitable trade -- but not for the women themselves. Despite the promise of receiving $5,000, Katarina says she only received $100 directly from the customer the third time she agreed to have sex. She says her Uzbek sponsor walked away with the rest of the money.
Katarina was eventually able to get out of prostitution. In some ways, she is one of the lucky ones. She says she knows of a girl -- perhaps 14 years old -- whose own mother, an alcoholic, sold her for $500 to traffickers to be brought to Dubai.
Akaev Bektybek, consul general of the Kyrgyz Republic, says he knows only too well about such traffickers. In his office, he keeps a thick folder filled with handwritten details and photographs of different women who have survived trafficking ordeals to the U.A.E. and returned safely to Kyrgyzstan. Bektybek says these are women who either escaped from their sponsors or were caught by police and ordered to leave the country.
While the majority of the prostitutes in the U.A.E. are from Russia, many prostitutes now working in the emirates say there has been a substantial increase in the presence of women from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, followed by Chechens and Tajiks. There also has been a substantial entry into the market by Chinese women.
Human smugglers, especially from the former Soviet republics, are said to be active and deep-rooted in the U.A.E. and lure many women from cash-strapped independent republics.
Tajikistan does not have a diplomatic presence in the United Arab Emirates. But Nigida Mamadjonova, who works for the International Office for Migration in Dushanbe, says she is aware of the growing problem in the U.A.E. "According to unofficial data, more than 300 Tajik woman and girls have been arrested and imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates for prostitution. We are not involved in releasing them. Preventing them from being involved in this traffic is more important. It's our priority," she says.
Despite repeated requests, officials at the Russian and Uzbek missions in the U.A.E. refused to comment on the prostitution issue for this report. Dubai emigration, foreign affairs, and police officials also refused to comment.
Interviews with women of various nationalities indicate that while some underground networks do bring women to the U.A.E. under false pretenses -- promising opportunities to work as secretaries or shopkeepers -- the overwhelming majority of the women appear to arrive in the U.A.E. of their own free will in an effort to make money.
While some have little formal education and have impoverished families and children back home to support, others are young, well-educated, and simply reaping the benefits of supply and demand.
"Marina" is a 28-year-old Romanian economist who says she is married to a police officer back home. She said she worked at various Romanian and international companies in her country and made an average of $200 a month. "I have a husband in Romania. He knows. When I want to do something, I will do it. I make good money here. I send to Romania $2,000 every month. I also have a boyfriend [here] to help me [with expenses]. This is the life I must live now. I think every girl has this kind of boyfriend to pay rent, to pay for food, to pay for clothes," Marina says.
She says her plan is to work in Dubai for two to three years and save enough money to buy apartments in Romania, refurbish them, and sell them for profit.
There are various legal loopholes these women use to stay in the U.A.E. Once a woman has arrived on a tourism or temporary-entry permit, there seems to be no shortage of local connections willing to help with the visa extension. "You know that only the local people can make that kind of visa," Marina says. "To that person, I give money, and he makes the visa."
She and others say the fee for turning a tourist or temporary visa into a residency permit is between $2,500 and $4,000.
Technically, Marina is wrong. Foreigners, too, under certain circumstances, can sponsor foreign employees, but interviews with prostitutes showed no sign of involvement by foreigners, except members of organized-crime groups.
The most common way of changing the visa status is through local citizens who either own a company or whose company has available "work visas." The government gives "visa rations" to companies in case they need to import skilled foreigners. A woman would then pay a fee of thousands of dollars to receive the company's visa allotment.
As long as they stay out of trouble, everyone is happy. If they run into trouble, the company will plead ignorance of the activity, and the woman is left to her own devices.
In some cases the work "sponsors" receive a portion of the woman's monthly income, or instead of an immediate fee, the woman pays a portion of her monthly income. Marina says she pays 50 percent of her income during the validity of her three-month visa.
In addition to some of the locals making money off the prostitution business, some of the women themselves have become "business owners" -- financing the trip to Dubai of women from their countries and teaching the tricks of the trade to the younger generation, still with help from the locals to navigate the murky roads of immigration channels.
"Alexandria," an Azerbaijani-Russian woman, says she came to Dubai eight years ago and first worked the streets before frequenting five-star hotels. With help from a U.A.E. man, she bought a residency visa. She is now bringing in women from Azerbaijan, lending them money until they get on their feet -- and taking a portion of their income.
But as the number of women and their nationalities has increased, so has the number of abuse cases. In the last month alone, half a dozen women have been found dead and in some cases mutilated, according to diplomatic missions, press reports, and U.A.E. sources.
Marina says abuse is, indeed, plentiful. "Many girls here have problems," she says. "Many, many girls."