Dubai frees woman who alleged rape

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Norwegian woman at the center of a rape-claim dispute said Monday officials dropped her 16-month sentence for having sex outside marriage in the latest clash between Dubai’s Islamic-based legal codes and its branding as a Western-friendly haven.

Dubai authorities hope pardoning the 24-year-old woman will allow them to sidestep another potentially embarrassing blow to the city’s heavily promoted image as a forward-looking model of luxury, excess, and cross-cultural understanding.

‘‘I am very, very happy,’’ Marte Deborah Dalelv said after she was cleared by order of Dubai’s ruler. ‘‘I am overjoyed.’’


But the case points to wider issues embedded in the rapid rise of Gulf centers such as Dubai and Qatar’s capital of Doha, host for the 2022 World Cup. These cities’ cosmopolitan ambitions are often at odds with the tug of traditional views on sex and alcohol.

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Nowhere in the region are the two sides more in potential conflict than Dubai, where the expatriate workforce outnumbers locals 5 to 1 and millions of tourists arrive each year with high-end fun on their minds.

Most foreign residents and visitors coast through Dubai’s relatively tolerant lifestyle. Women in full Islamic coverings shop alongside others in miniskirts, and liquor flows at resorts and restaurants. Yet once authorities determine a legal line has been crossed, it’s often difficult and bewildering for the suspects.

Dalelv, in Dubai for a business meeting, said she told police in March that she was raped by a co-worker after a night that included cocktails. She was held in custody for four days and sentenced last week for illicit sex outside marriage and alcohol consumption — which is technically illegal without a proper license, but the rule is rarely enforced.

The alleged attacker, a 33-year-old Sudanese man, was charged with the same offenses and received a 13-month sentence. He was also cleared by a pardon, according to Dalelv.


Rape prosecutions are complicated in the United Arab Emirates because — as in some other countries influenced by Islamic law — conviction requires either a confession or the testimony of adult male witnesses.

In a twist that often shocks Westerners, allegations of rape can boomerang into illegal sex charges against the accuser. In 2008, an Australian woman said she was jailed for eight months after claiming she was gang-raped at a hotel.

Fears of sex-outside-marriage charges also lead some single domestic workers to abandon babies or seek back-room abortions.

Other, less serious, cases have also shed light on the tensions in Dubai. In 2009, a British couple was sentenced to one month each in prison after an Emirati woman claimed they engaged in an overly passionate kiss. Motorists have been convicted for a rude gesture in a moment of road rage.

‘‘I have my passport back. I am pardoned,’’ said Dalelv, who worked for an interior design firm in Qatar. ‘‘I am free.’’


A statement Saturday from Dalelv’s Qatar-based employer, Al Mana Interiors, said she was dismissed from her job after she ‘‘ceased communications’’ with the company following the alleged rape. But Thomas Lundgren, owner of The ONE, the Dubai company that franchises Al Mana, was quoted Monday by as saying the firing was ‘‘a mistake’’ and said she can return.

In Norway, Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told the Norwegian news agency NTB that media attention and Norway’s diplomatic measures helped Dalelv.

Norway also reminded the United Arab Emirates of obligations under United Nations accords to seriously investigate claims of violence against women.