Caught on Tape: The Middle East’s Culture of Cruelty

Some of the bravest and most distinguished analysts from the Middle East emphasize that region's culture of cruelty. Kanan Makiya titled his 1994 book about Arabs Cruelty and Silence. Fouad Ajami writes about Beirut being "lost to a new reign of cruelty," about Iraq's "plunder and cruelty and sectarian animus," and about the region's "cruelty, waste, and confusion."

That cruelty, usually at a remove from outsiders, became cinematically vivid on April 22, 2009, when ABC News aired a tape of a prince from the United Arab Emirates sadistically torturing an Afghan merchant he accused of dishonesty. No less instructive were the passive reactions of his government and of American officials. The story reveals much and is worth pondering:

In Abu Dhabi, the UAE's largest and most powerful emirate, the Nahyan family has long ruled and dominated. After the 2004 death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who had ruled the emirate since its independence in 1971, his long-restrained 22 royal sons and grandsons reveled in their new-found freedom of action. One of them in particular, Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a younger brother of Abu Dhabi's current ruler and president of the seven-member United Arab Emirates federation, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (b. 1948), went crazy. "It's like you flipped a switch and the man took a wrong turn in his life and started getting violent," comments Bassam Nabulsi, 50, of Houston, Texas, a native of Lebanon and former business associate of Issa's.

Issa met Nabulsi in Houston, where Nabulsi provided him with hotel and limousine services. Their relationship developed into a business partnership that lasted over twelve years. But Nabulsi is now suing Issa for breach of contract in a federal court in Houston; to support his accusations, Nabulsi made public a 45-minute tape of Issa torturing an Afghan grain dealer named Mohammed Shah Poor in 2004. Issa accused the dealer of cheating him of a grain delivery to his ranch worth about US$5,000 and assaulted him at night in a remote spot.

ABC News ran an initial television story of the tape (which can be seen here). Its accompanying print story, "Torture Tape Implicates UAE Royal Sheikh," summarizes the gruesome details:

The Sheikh begins by stuffing sand down the man's mouth, as the police officers restrain the victim. Then he fires bullets from an automatic rifle around him as the man howls incomprehensibly. At another point on the tape, the Sheikh can be seen telling the cameraman to come closer. "Get closer. Get closer. Get closer. Let his suffering show," the Sheikh says.

Over the course of the tape, Sheikh Issa acts in an increasingly sadistic manner. He uses an electric cattle prod against the man's testicles and inserts it in his anus. At another point, as the man wails in pain, the Sheikh pours lighter fluid on the man's testicles and sets them aflame. Then the tape shows the Sheikh sorting through some wooden planks. "I remember there was one that had a nail in it," he says on the tape. The Sheikh then pulls down the pants of the victim and repeatedly strikes him with board and its protruding nail.

At one point, he puts the nail next to the man's buttocks and bangs it through the flesh. "Where's the salt," asks the Sheikh as he pours a large container of salt on to the man's bleeding wounds. The victim pleads for mercy, to no avail. The final scene on the tape shows the Sheikh positioning his victim on the desert sand and then driving over him repeatedly. A sound of breaking bones can be heard on the tape.

Shah Poor survived this sustained assault; Nabulsi says his frantic efforts got Shah Poor to a hospital where he spent months recovering from internal injuries.

Nabulsi recounts that Issa had tapes made of this and other torture sessions so he could later relish his sadism and writes that he "maintained all important business and personal items for Sheikh Issa," including the Shah Poor video. In April 2005, Nabulsi explains, due to his criticism of Issa's torturing, the two business partners fell out. Nabulsi hid the tape as evidence of Issa's depravity and, in turn, Issa sent the Abu Dhabi police to retrieve it. When Nabulsi stonewalled, they arrested him on trumped-up charges of marijuana possession and held him in Al-Wathba Prison for three months.

Nabulsi says he was subject to many assaults during his incarceration. According to his Houston lawyer, Tony Buzbee, as police officers stuck a finger in his anus. they said, "This is from Sheik Issa. Are you going to give us the tapes?" Buzbee maintains that the guards "would keep him from sleeping, deny him his medications, tell him they were going to rape his wife, kill his child. They made him pose naked while they took pictures." Allegedly, Issa himself sometimes participated in the torture sessions. A court eventually acquitted Nabulsi and he managed to escape Abu Dhabi.

Almost as revealing as the tape itself was the response to it from the Abu Dhabi and U.S. governments. In an official statement, the former deemed the matter settled privately between Issa and Shah Poor because the two agreed "not to bring formal charges against each other, i.e., theft on the one hand and assault on the other hand." Prodded by ABC News, Abu Dhabi's Interior Ministry acknowledged Issa's role in the tape but claimed that "The incidents depicted in the video tapes were not part of a pattern of behavior." Its review found "all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department." As for Nabulsi's case, Interior "also confirmed that Mr. Nabulsi was in no way mistreated during his incarceration for drug possession."

Perhaps it bears mentioning that Abu Dhabi's minister of the interior is one of Issa's brothers?

As for officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, Nabulsi gives them mixed grades. Some knew about the torture tapes but did not protest Issa's actions. In particular, Bill Wallrap of the Department of Homeland Security saw some of the tape one day before Nabulsi's arrest; Nabulsi quotes his response as advising him to "gather your family and get out of the country as soon as possible for your own safety." Other U.S. embassy employees, however, did help and Nabulsi says their visits to him in prison had a critical role in his staying alive and fleeing the country. Hillary Clinton's State Department has been conspicuously silent on the matter; revealingly, after watching 10 minutes of the film, one U.S. diplomat bloodlessly commented, "It was interesting."

However, the one-two punch of ABC News playing portions of the torture tape on air and to Rep. James McGovern (Democrat of Massachusetts), chairman of the Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House, did have consequences. Fully five years after the incident took place, Abu Dhabi authorities finally arrested Issa, detained other participants in the torture session, and announced a criminal probe into the torture.

Most inconveniently for the UAE, the torture tape surfaced just as the U.S. government was considering a nuclear cooperation agreement with it, jeopardizing the bill's passage. Rep. Ed Markey (Democrat of Massachusetts) expressed the view of many: "A country where the laws can be flouted by the rich and powerful is not a country that can safeguard sensitive U.S. nuclear technology." Despite itself, the State Department is having to take the torture tape into account; the nuclear deal has been delayed and faces uncertain congressional prospects.


(1) Issa's unrestrained rage over a $5,000 delivery perfectly symbolizes the Middle East's culture of cruelty. Those who have power flaunt and brandish it.

(2) What would befall someone accused of stealing $10,000? What might befall Bernard Madoff in Abu Dhabi?

(3) Issa and his henchmen have a practiced air about their torturing – suggesting they have done it before. Indeed, Nabulsi says he has more such videos in his possession.

(4) Abu Dhabi has a relatively benign government; one shudders to think what sport the grandees of tougher Middle Eastern states indulge in.

(5) As the world gets smaller, how does the West maintain a distance from this ghastly aspect of Middle Eastern life?

To access the embedded lonks and images please go go: – May 15, 2009

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