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My response to the Slowtwitch article on Andrew Starykowicz in Abu Dhabi

Let me start by saying that I know Andrew, have raced against him, and I am sadened by the turn of events that happened to him in the UAE.  I wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him setting bike records all over the world very shortly.

 

I first heard about his story as soon as it happened and was deeply concerned.  A few weeks later, I was due to race the Tri Yas Olympic Triathlon in Abu Dhabi which was arguably the most well-run sporting event I have participated in in my amateur and young professional career.  The story I heard before going to Abu Dhabi shed a very negative light on Abu Dhabi authorities and was actually very similar to the article written by Dan Empfield on slowtwitch.com.  This bothered me on several levels: 1) I know Andrew and did not want him to go through such an experience, especially in a Middle Eastern country. 2) I am sponsored by the Embassy of the UAE in Washington, DC, and have always been very proud of that fact.  Once I arrived in-country, I spoke to different entities to educate myself about the situation.  Like most stories, the devil is in the details and after hearing the "other" side's point of view, the events that occured made a lot more sense.

 

Being the first professional Egyptian Triathlete and one of the very few Middle Eastern pros, it is only logical that a number of professionals in the triathlon community reached out to me to ask for clarification and understand the cultural nuances at play.  Until today, I have only spoken to these individuals to explain to them what I heard and how things function in the UAE.  These pros walked away with a better understanding of the situation.  Not all of them agreed, but at least they understood.  

 

I got wind that an article was about to come out on slowtwitch.com so I reached out through my channels to get in touch with Dan Empfield to share with him that different point of view.  Mr. Empfield was initially very receptive on Friday, so you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when he chose to run the article without getting additional input.  It seems as if publishing the article first thing on Monday morning trumped the potential of getting a fuller, more balanced point of view.  The article almost singularily focused on Andrew, his plight, and the (misconstrued) cultural aspects at play; the victim involved - a young volunteer from England - wasn't even pictured in the article, and Mr. Empfield calls into question "cultural facts" with supporting evidence from a completely different country.  

 

I had spent many hours over the weekend wrapping my head around the story and trying to get some official statement from the event organizers for slowtwitch.com.  Now that I have all of that and read the article, unfortunately littered with cultural and factual inaccuracies, I feel the need to speak out and share the email response I had prepared for Mr. Empfield:

 

Dan,

 

Thank you very much for reaching out and being so thorough in your research.  I am the first Egyptian pro triathlete.  I compete mainly in ITU events but participate in as many draft and non-draft events in the Middle East as I can.  I have raced the short course version of the Abu Dhabi Tri in 2011 and am familiar with the setting and the race.  One of my title sponsors is the Embassy of the UAE in Washington, DC, and I do go to Abu Dhabi fairly frequently.  I understand the culture.  With that said, I am in no way representing or affiliated with the race, and my comments below are just that, "my" comments.

 

I want to start by letting you know that I have lived in the US for 20 years and spent a better portion of my childhood in Switzerland so although I am Egyptian, I am intimately familiar with western culture.  Furthermore, I understand what it means to live and having to function within the confinement of a society other than your own.

 

I have spent some time understanding your point of view.  The way I see it is as follows:

 

1)  Andrew did not have a "wasta" and therefore ended up being treated unfairly.

 

2)  Andrew waited until someone was at the scene before continuing, so where is the problem?

 

3)  Western expectations are not in line with Middle Eastern laws and customs.

 

Here is what I have to say about each of these points:

 

1)  A "wasta", a bribe or the "old boys club" is indeed a problem in the Middle East as well as everywhere else in the world.  My home base in the US is Washington, DC, and I have witnessed it there just as much as when I go back home.  A quick trip to the DMV will show "low tag" holders walking to a special line and receiving special treatment to retrieve their new license plates while everyone else waits in gigantic lines.  Does it help to be connected?  Sure.  But this is a global phenomenon not restricted to Arab countries.

 

Secondly, Andrew did have many "wastas," and his case was actually expedited and received special attention.

 

With that said, a "wasta" is outside the realm of law.  I think you will agree that although one may not like a certain law or a process, it does not mean that one should go above the law to get the resolution they desire or expedite a process.  I think that everyone would agree that the lines at the DMV are unreasonably long but this does not mean that it is ok for me to contact my friend, the governor, or bribe an employee to expedite the process. 

 

The UAE is an independent country with its own set of rules.  There are procedures that are to be followed in case of serious accidents which this situation fell under.  Much like in the US, the process must run its course.  Given the severity of the injury and the inability of the young woman to even speak and explain her side of the story, an investigation was necessary.  I must add that I was not there.  How he interacted with the local authorities and handled things may play into his situation.  Much like in the US, if one is to get pulled over for running a stop sign, how one interacts with the officer, regardless of whether s/he agrees or not with the charges, may land her/him with a warning or a night in jail.  Regardles of his behavior with the authorities, when one visits a country, whether for a sporting event, business or pleasure, one must abide by the rules regardless of whether s/he agrees with them.  In the US, if a visitor receives a reckless driving charge while on vacation, s/he will receive a court date, and they must not leave the country until they settle their case in court.  Court dates can sometimes be 2 months down the line and if they fail to appear, a bench warrant is issued for their arrest.

 

Finally, you must be very careful when mentioning the Babbly Bahrania blog.  Bahrain, although also in the Middle East, is a completely different country than the United Arab Emirates.  Mentioning that blog would be the equivalent of a Middle Eastern paper using a kidnapping in Mexico to show that the US is a dangerous place.

 

I don't think that "wasta" was the problem here.  If anything, he had the contacts, but the authorities wanted to stick to the rule of law which is the right thing to do.  Your argument with regards to the "wasta" is that he should have received privileged treatment... not sure if that's a reasonable thing to expect.  Furthermore, the "wasta" argument as you depict it would only make sense if the victim was Emirati.  In this case, both parties involved were foreigners and the system was not biased towards one or the other.  The system was not out to get Andrew but it is in place to ensure that the rights of the victim, a foreigner also, are protected.

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