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Reporting from Dubai

05 Aug 2009 22:589 Comments

sheikh zayed road

Close enough to feel the heat.

By JASON REZAIAN in Dubai | 5 August 2009

Notebook In recent weeks, Dubai has become perhaps the best place where one can currently report on Iran in any meaningful way.

In the absence of the normal electronic flow of information coming out of Iran -- both due to increased pressure inside the country and decreased bandwidth -- the back and forth of people coming to and from Dubai has created a unique channel for relaying news, and in many ways this has been what the global media has unknowingly been relying on for fresh insight out of Iran.

We should, however, be paying more attention to the impact Dubai is having on creating this story, and consider tempering our acceptance of what's being peddled by American and European "experts" on the subject of Iran, whose information is often frankly quite stale or skewed.

First, Dubai has a large community of Iranians living and working here. Unlike many of their fellow Iranian expats in Europe or North America, the vast majority of Iranians living in Dubai don't consider themselves exiles. Furthermore, they come from all walks of Iranian life, bound together mostly by a desire to enhance their quality of life. This is important in terms of spreading news, as they have a more pragmatic approach as opposed to some of the more radical -- and less plausible -- ones coming from the West.

Most of them return to Iran often, and even more regularly play host to their countrymen who feel like letting loose in a way that in the Middle East only Dubai affords.

For this reason, it's easy to pick up a broad range of opinions and insights about what's happening inside Iran.

Lara Setrakian of ABC News, has been one of the reporters at the forefront of the Iran election saga and she hasn't set foot in the country for over a year. But she's using a large network of Iranians, many of them based in Dubai, to help round out her reports on Iran.

"There is a cultural authenticity to being so close to Iran -- the community is a degree removed, but still in touch with what's going on and how people feel about it," says Setrakian. "Plus, we find people more free to speak with us here than they would be there, where it's practically become criminal to speak with Western press."

There is also an objectivity that Dubai provides, which can't be found in Western capitals. It's important to note that there is no real sense of an organized opposition among the Iranian community here. In a country where displays of public dissent are arguably less acceptable than they are in Iran, the number of people in Dubai, for example, who attended the July 25th global rally for Iran, numbered less than 300, according to one attendee. That's a fraction of the many thousands who attended similar rallies the same day in Europe and the United States.

Still, those who did attend were there for the singular purpose of a more free Iran; the event wasn't hijacked by exiled opposition groups like the MEK, because such parties aren't allowed to exist in the Emirates.

Ask Iranians in the streets of Tehran, though, and they will tell you that they feel a much closer kinship to the protesters in Dubai, many of whom have been traveling back to Iran weekly to take part in the demonstrations back home.

"It's my country," said Hassan, a 26 year Iranian who works in the hospitality industry in Dubai. "I go home for a couple of days, and join my friends in the street. It's the least I can do."

Even more important in telling the story of Iran, however, are the people leaving there coming to Dubai for a few days of perceived freedom. I had the opportunity to host one of my closest friends for three days last week, and the insights he shared with me could be found nowhere in the Western media.

When I picked him up at the airport, the first thing he said to me was, "I wanted to tell you so many things, but you know they were listening to our calls. I can't tell you how strange these past few weeks have been."

He proceeded to tell me about the ways in which the regime has lost its grasp on authority and reality. Examples included the state-run television, and the bizarre way in which it had been reporting the exact opposite of what was actually happening or airing quizzes that required answers to be sent via text message, this at a time when text messaging services were completely disabled. Each time miraculously an answer with a name and neighborhood attached to it would arrive, people were left wondering, "How stupid do they think we are?"

He also talked about the regime's general silence. In a land ruled by an ideology that requires constant reinforcement, hardly anyone in power was saying anything. The Basij militiamen, so long an accepted arm of the law, were now being looked at as little more than hired bullies, to be feared only for ability to commit force. In beating women, some of them elderly, they had lost what little respect they once had.

These sorts of conversations are now taking place in Dubai constantly, and will likely only increase in frequency as the situation becomes ever less tolerable for many inside Iran.

I've been out of Tehran for over a month now, and after being in the thick of things, I too, have felt shut out from the story. Being in Dubai, though, has made me feel close enough to be able to still feel it.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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9 Comments

if the nuclear facility situated in natanz will be destabilized at this "juncture" it will tottally i beileve undermine the system that exists in iran determinedly and culminatingly for all


if they are unhindered in their ability to flex this muscle "they" will use as the biggest and dangerous mouthpeice to create dangerous attention a serious very much wanted "fix" right now


i beileve that the facility will be the "make it" or "end it" for the regime people of iran and freedom loving people everywhere


i beileve in simple fate


good luck may good fortune go with you


may justice and prosperity follow us all everywhere for destiny

john / August 5, 2009 8:43 PM

Mr. Rezaian


Its good to know that Dubai has a Iranian population that is more connected with the current situation in Iran vs. Iranian populations in Europe or Americas.


As an Iranian in Dubai you could have added more substance to your article by giving more first hand accounts of what these connected Iranians in Dubai are saying about the situation as opposed to other Iranians abroad, Rather than focusing the bulk of your article on why Iranians in Dubai are more in touch with the situation without stating a clear contrast in their views among other ex-pats.

Mehrdad / August 6, 2009 10:44 AM

Sorry...again this one.


We might be in the West...we mightn't even be Iranian's...but there's nothing more most of us would like to see than a free Iran. Humans are not born to be captive...if so...God would have created us in an eternal prison cocoon never to escape. Iran will be free...because the way it is...is not natural to man...or more importantly to God. My grandparent's used to say Communism would never fall...they used to say Ireland would never be free...they used to say there was a "God" On the third thing they were right...& he made good the other two. So he'll do it too for Iran at a time of his choosing...Today, Tomorrow, Next Year...or in a second...it is his "Given", see!

Jaker / August 6, 2009 7:24 PM

Now I'm going to Press TV to see if I can sneak in a "Goal" their end! Bye!

Jaker / August 6, 2009 7:25 PM

This reads like a freelance journalist trying to get more work.


What do you mean there is no "electronic flow of information coming out of Iran? Have you not heard of the telephone?


Maybe you should move to Iraq. There are many Iranians there. If you talk to some of the pilgrims you may get a different impression than from the Iranians who go backwards and forwards to Dubai.

Nazih Musa / August 7, 2009 4:30 AM

give me a break! this is a typical biased tajer point of view- instead of promoting unity in all iranians, it's selling its own "goods" - "we in dubai offer a better deal than them in other parts of the world" -too bad -if it weren't for that there are several good points for discussion

WishOneDay / August 8, 2009 8:55 AM

I can't agree with you Mr. Rezaian. I was more "connected" with Iranians when I was in Europe than I am now. My initial thought was also, that many Iranians in Dubai would have first-hand accounts that they could relay better than over the phone. However, that is not the case. Its very frustrating when all you hear is "life goes on". Many who have lived in Dubai have a very different perspective of a free Iran than those who are in Europe and America. There is no doubt in that. There are maybe a handful who actually have the courage to show their support or voice out their real opinions. They are just as scared and have been living too long in a restricted environment in Dubai. No protests, no freedom of political opinion... there is very little to base a report on.

sabzenaz / August 9, 2009 1:49 AM

Dear Jason,


I understand where your views are coming from, it is true that Iranians in Dubai, can get first hand news and then relay them to the media or freelance journalists, however Iranians here, could not share their pain, and show their support as much as people (Iranians) could in Europe and US.They were basically not allowed according to UAE laws,to gather or to chant, more than a few minutes.....However we as Iranians every where feel the same, and share the pain, in our minds and hearts.

merry / August 10, 2009 2:52 AM

Mr. Rezaian,


What I found most interesting about your article is the journalist you choose to highlight in your narrative of the authenticity of information flowing from Iran to Dubai. As you are well aware of, many journalists based in Iran even before the June election were forced to leave Iran. Some have relocated to Dubai while others report from Beirut or Cairo- other non-Western, or non-European/American countries. Lara Setrakian is a reporter for ABC News, and while I know very little about her, it seems to me she is in Dubai chasing any newsworthy event that will blow-up her career, a la Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour. I would have appreciated a more nuanced report about authentic information coming from other reporters in Dubai or a city like Beirut where the Islamic Republic of Iran has a significant presence. It seems to me your article starts off with a promising case about a current debate among some academics (see Angry Arab Asad AbuKhalil v. Hamid Dabashi) on the location of reporters covering news of Iran and turns into a subjective case for why the experiences of Iranian expats in Dubai is more authentic than those of other Iranian communities abroad. Sadly, you failed to take note of the impact of second-hand news in either case, the varying demographics among Iranian expats in Dubai and thus the multiplicity of experiences and understandings of what is presently happening in Iran. No journalist should rely solely on their proximity to a country to guarantee the quality of their news.

samira / August 21, 2009 1:34 PM