Roken, Mohammed al- (1962–)

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Roken, Mohammed al-

Mohammed Abdullah al-Roken (Muhammad Abdullah Muhammad Al Rukn, al-Rukn) is a leading legal scholar and lawyer in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). His career has included legal representation of public and private sector clients before all the courts of the U.A.E. and he has served as an adviser to the Federal National Council. However, he has become an outspoken critic of the country's justice system and the government has taken legal action against him. Al-Roken has earned wide admiration as a committed teacher, as a serious and often passionate voice on legal and human rights issues, and in his services to the legal profession, both nationally and internationally.


Al-Roken was born in the emirate of Dubai in 1962. In 1971 Dubai joined with several other emirates to form the U.A.E. He earned an LL.B. degree in law and politics from the U.A.E. National University in 1985, and holds both an LL.M. (1985) and a Ph.D. (1992) in constitutional law from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. He practices law in several specialties as senior member of the law firm al-Roken & Associates. He served as president of the U.A.E. Bar Association, is currently vice president of the Union Intérnationale des Avocats, representing the U.A.E., and is a member of several leading international legal associations.

Al-Roken had been an associate professor of public law and assistant dean of the Faculty of Shari'a and Law at the U.A.E. National University from 1992 to 2002. He is a noted author of books and articles on a wide range of legal matters. In the past few years, he has spoken and written forcefully on human rights issues, especially with respect to the situation of expatriate workers in the U.A.E. The government has curtailed his teaching, imposed restrictions on his writing and public speaking, and has on two occasions in 2006 detained him for questioning about his human rights activities. In 2007 he was sentenced by a U.A.E. court to a three-month prison sentence for sex out of wedlock, a charge that international rights groups characterized as contrived.

A complex character, al-Roken's seemingly Western-style liberalism in defense of legal and human rights coexists with a strong commitment to the traditions and morals of Islamic society that might otherwise seem to place him in the camp of political Islamists. He views the rapid pace of economic and social development in the U.A.E., and especially in Dubai, with deep misgiving. His reaction to Dubai's loss of its former identity has led him into what he characterizes as internal exile: physical removal of his place of residence to the outskirts of Dubai City.


Name: Mohammed Abdullah al-Roken (Muhammad Abdullah Muhammad Al Rukn, al-Rukn)

Birth: 1962, Emirate of Dubai

Nationality: Emirati

Education: LL.B. (law and politics), U.A.E. National University, 1985; LL.M. (constitutional law), University of Warwick, United Kingdom, 1985; Ph.D. (constitutional law), University of Warwick, 1992.


  • 1992: Assistant professor of law in the Faculty of Law and Shari'a on the U.A.E. National University
  • 1994: Assistant dean for student affairs, U.A.E. National University
  • 1998: Vice dean, U.A.E. National University; chairman, U.A.E. Jurists Association
  • 2002: Vice president representing the U.A.E. with the Union Intérnationale des Avocats (International Association of Lawyers)


Current U.S. policy is based on the premise that the root of terrorism and hatred of the U.S. in the Middle East are [sic] to be found in the absence of democracy and in the existence of political regimes that have been closed and fossilized for decades. The solution according to the Bush administration is to establish a new model of democracy within the Arab countries.

The present is the best time to rebuild the region because political conditions are favorable, and objections and resistance to change are weak. The U.S. scenario for redrawing the regional map follows the order in which countries surrounding Iraq will be affected by change. They are the Gulf states, followed by Syria, followed by Egypt.

Democracy is not an epidemic that can spread from one state to another. Creating a model by force of arms will not be appealing to people of the region, particularly those that have not suffered greatly from the absence of political freedoms, humiliation and huge economic decline in the way the Iraqi people have.



Al-Roken has been an important figure since the 1990s as a scholar, lawyer, and human rights activist in the U.A.E. Immediately after earning his Ph.D. in 1992, al-Roken became an associate professor of law in the Faculty of Law and Shari'a of the U.A.E. National University. In 1994 he was made assistant dean for student affairs and in 1998 was elevated to the position of vice dean of the Faculty of Law and Shari'a. His rapid rise as a teacher and university administrator was matched by a large output of books (seven in Arabic) and articles that have appeared in leading Arab and Western law journals and other publications. His writings have ranged widely over legal and other subjects, including the U.A.E. constitution, the U.A.E.-Iran dispute over ownership of three Persian/Arab Gulf islands, and Christian-Muslim dialogue. Even when his high profile human rights activities had drawn the anger of the government, causing him to lose his university position, the Dubai Cultural Council recognized him as one of the emirate's leading academics. In addition, al-Roken has participated in the discussions of international forums, such as the Arab Judicial Forum.

In the same year that he became an academic vice dean, al-Roken was chosen, at the age of thirty-six, to be chairman of the U.A.E. Jurists Association (Bar Association), reflecting his position with al-Roken & Associates, a leading commercial, corporate, and banking law firm in Dubai. He and the other members of the firm represent private and public U.A.E. clients as well as foreign clients investing in the U.A.E. before both local and federal courts. al-Roken has also acted as an adviser to the Federal National Council on pending draft legislation. Internationally, he is active as a member of the International Association of Constitutional Law and the International Bar Association, and serves as vice president of the International Association of Lawyers.

It is as a human rights advocate that al-Roken has drawn greatest attention, and it seems likely that his most significant contributions and his most lasting influence are to be in this area. He has made his voice heard on this subject in scholarly publications and increasingly in the popular news media, both newspapers and television. As early as 2000 he was banned from writing a column in the local press because of its sharp criticism of the government. Two years later he was forbidden to teach at the U.A.E. National University.

Al-Roken has offered a sober and thoughtful critique of the laws enacted by the U.A.E. and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to counter the terrorist threat.

In 2005 in the Internet journal, he expressed concern that the U.A.E.'s antiterrorism law was overly broad in its reach. Previously he had been harsh in his criticism of the antiterrorism policies of the U.A.E.'s principal ally, the United States. In the U.A.E. press in 2002, he described the School of the Americas, a U.S. training facility for Latin American military officers, in an article titled "America's School for Torture" and accused the United States of institutionalizing the violation of human rights. In a 2003 al-Jazeera editorial, he described the U.S.-led overthrow of the saddam hussein regime as the initial phase of a democratization pipe dream aimed at reshaping the Middle East region to better serve the interests of the United States and its allies.

It is his efforts to influence the U.A.E. government on granting greater political freedom to its citizens and on human rights issues, especially concerning expatriate workers, which have brought al-Roken international attention and a punitive response from the U.A.E. government. On several occasions, the government has forced cancellation of his public lectures, one of which was about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and another on the importance of holding popular elections in the U.A.E. In 2000 his newspaper column in the U.A.E. was banned and in 2002 he was no longer permitted to teach at the U.A.E. National University. In 2004, with twenty-one other U.A.E. nationals, he submitted an application to establish a human rights organization, a request that, as of 2007, has not been acted upon.

Al-Roken has frequently represented expatriate workers in Dubai in their suits against employers who have allegedly failed to pay wages or offer adequate working conditions. Some of those employers are from prominent families in Dubai, and the lawsuits strengthen official antipathy toward him. On 27 July 2006 and on 23 August 2006 officials in Dubai detained him, both times to interrogate him about his human rights activities and his public speeches. On the second occasion he was held for three days on a charge of immoral behavior, and in January 2007 was tried on that charge and sentenced to three months in prison for sex out of wedlock with a German woman. The arrest that led to the trial and conviction came soon after an interview that al-Roken gave on Arab satellite television about the Israeli assault on Lebanon following the Hizbullah killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Human Rights Watch condemned his prosecution in a letter to U.A.E. president Shaykh khalifa bin zayid al nahyan. Al-Roken has appealed his sentence.


Al-Roken is deeply concerned about the future of his society, in particular Dubai where he was born and grew up, and that concern has been reflected in his widely reported efforts to promote human rights, the growth of civil society, and the development of greater political freedoms. He embodies what would appear to be contradictory impulses. Despite his exposure to Western intellectual traditions, his impressive scholarship, and his brilliant practice of law, he is a traditionalist whose defense of religious morals might even be seen as identifying him with proponents of political Islam. His arguments for democratic reform are aimed not so much at endowing Dubai and the U.A.E. with the democratic values of Western societies as they are at enabling his society to defend its traditional values against the onrush of alien values. He has been described as a gadfly, someone who is troubled by the direction the government of his country has taken and who feels compelled to speak out. His views significantly reflect those of many others in the Gulf states, who are also dismayed at the personal and societal disruption resulting from extremely rapid economic and social development. Because of this, al-Roken's views are certain to have an important continuing impact in the U.A.E. and beyond.


The force of his intellect and his astute use of the news media to air his opinions has given al-Roken considerable stature in the Gulf region and in the international community. Widely noted intervention on his behalf by international human rights organizations has helped to give him and his views further prominence.

Al-Roken's high-profile human rights activities have reinforced U.S. government human rights criticisms of the U.A.E. (even though he has taken issue with the way those criticisms have been made) and helped to draw special attention to this issue. He has focused international attention on a major problem for Dubai and the other Gulf states, the increasing restiveness of ill-paid foreign laborers lacking basic rights, which, if not soon effectively addressed, could undercut the glittering edifice of modernization on the Arab side of the Gulf. Whatever the outcome of al-Roken's appeal of his court sentence, his so-called gadfly political and human rights activities are certain to be emulated and carried forward by others, insuring a significant legacy, although the specific shape of that legacy cannot presently be discerned.


Heine, Peter, and Haitham Aiash, eds. "Gedanken zum Christlich-Muslimischen Dialog." In Vom 11 September zum 20 Marz, 2006. Berlin: Verlag fur Integration und Wissenschaft, 2006.

Hellyer, Peter, and Ibrahim Al Abed, eds. "Dimensions of the U.A.E.-Iran Dispute over Three Islands." In United Arab Emirates: A New Perspective. London: Trident Press, 2001.

Robbers, Gerhard, ed. "United Arab Emirates Constitution." In Encyclopedia of World Constitutions. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Roken, Muhammad Abdullah al-. "The Democratization Pipe Dream." Daily Star (Beirut) (11 March 2003). Available from

                                       Malcolm C. Peck

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Roken, Mohammed al- (1962–)

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