Dubai sheikhs hire lobbyists, PR firms amid boy-enslavement lawsuit allegations

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), facing a class-action lawsuit over alleged enslavement of boys as jockeys in camel races, has hired several top Washington lobbyists and PR firms to present their case to Congress and the public.

The lawsuit, which the UAE seeks to dismiss, was filed in September and alleges that senior ministers from Dubai conspired to force thousands of underage boys to race camels. Having been hit by a public-relations disaster in Washington last year, the emirates are working hard to avoid another similar blow.

“Dubai learned from the Dubai Ports World controversy how easy it was to distort its reputation in the U.S. media,” said Mark Saylor, one of the defendants’ spokesmen.

Filed in federal court in Miami by the firm Motley Rice LLC and private practice lawyer John Andres Thornton, the suit accuses Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE’s prime minister and vice president, and his brother, Hamdan, the minister of finance and industry, of conspiring to enslave children “as camel jockeys for the entertainment of the Arabian elite,” according to the firm’s press release.

Motley Rice is described by Fortune magazine as “the most feared asbestos/tobacco/mass-torts plaintiffs law firm in the country.” It won roughly $250 billion from a settlement with the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

John Eubanks, a Motley Rice attorney said, “This case is about personal liability, not about the act or omissions of the United Arab Emirates government.”

“The lawsuit … is defective for numerous reasons and the underlying issues are already being ... addressed by UNICEF” and several other countries, said Saylor.

Motley Rice is arguing against dismissing the case. It says that the Maktoum brothers have broken “the law of nations” under the Alien Tort Statute by enslaving the boy riders, according to a March 2007 filing.

UNICEF praised the UAE. Its spokesman, Geoffrey Keele, said, “UAE has been very proactive in addressing this situation and has taken a number of steps to not only stop the use of children as camel jockeys, but to assist former jockeys to return home and reintegrate into their communities.”

It has also banned underage children from racing camels and has begun replacing them with robotic jockeys, Keele said.
The Maktoums hired Sitrick and Company to provide “public relations advice and services,” according to Department of Justice (DoJ) records. Saylor, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, is still working with Sitrick, although he left the company to create his own firm.

Like Sitrick, DLA Piper, a major multinational law firm, has been working on the case since September but has subcontracted out to smaller outfits since early 2007.

The firm has designated most of its lobbying work to Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart Inc. to protect against any congressional action. The sheikh’s lobbyists are seeking executive branch intervention in the case in the form of  a “statement of interest” supporting dismissal, according to well-placed sources.

The year-long contract with Johnson Madigan could cost the sheikhs’ more than $800,000. Jeffery Peck, Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) former counsel, and Peter Madigan, once a State Department official under the first President Bush, signed the subcontract.

DLA Piper has another subcontract, with Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, that has pledged to “not only monitor, but when appropriate, also seek to influence online media outlets, blogs and search engine results,” according to DoJ records.
Rock Creek will identify “key blog audiences with high authority” and pitch “key bloggers for original posts.”

“It is simply a recognition of how inaccurate views can be disseminated quickly over the Internet,” said Saylor.

Lawyers for both sides continue to file motions. Attorneys for the UAE sheikhs are expected to file again this month for the suit’s dismissal.