Sheryl Sandberg, author of the women-in-business advice book Lean In and chief operating officer of Facebook parent company “Meta,” shared some thoughts on feminism and human rights on Tuesday.
“No two countries run by women would ever go to war,” Sandberg told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in Dubai on Tuesday during a fireside at a Cartier event marking International Women’s Day.
“I really believe that a world where women were running half our countries and companies, and men were running half our homes, would be a safer and much more prosperous world,” she said. Sure. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe not. But—hang on, wait.
Sandberg told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in Dubai
[Pulling out magnifying glass]
That’s right, this event was held in Dubai. Which is part of the United Arab Emirates, in which women need permission from a male guardian to get married, unmarried women who give birth are reported to the police, the children of unwed mothers may not be given legal status, and so forth and so on. Per Human Rights Watch, a woman in the UAE may also “lose her right to financial maintenance from her husband” if she “refuses to have sexual relations with him without a lawful excuse,” and can be found to have violated spousal obligations if she takes a job that a judge determines to have been adverse to her family’s interests. Leaning in is only a little bit legal in the UAE. A teensy bit.
Women’s rights in Dubai in particular have been the subject of international scrutiny in recent years thanks to the story of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, one of the daughters of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who rules the emirate of Dubai and is also the prime minister of the UAE as a whole. Latifa reportedly attempted to leave Dubai in 2018 via boat before being captured and returned by Indian commandos who were cooperating with the UAE; she later said on video that she was being held against her will. (In June 2021, a statement purportedly issued on her behalf by a U.K.-based law firm said she is free to travel.) Amazingly, Sheikh Mohammed has also been accused of having a different daughter seized by commandos in the U.K. in the year 2000. (He has denied the allegations.) In a world run by women, these daughter-retrieving commandoes would be at home. The only thing they’d have to kidnap would be the remote control, am I right?!
The sheikh himself inherited his position from his father (who inherited it from his father, etc.), and Human Rights Watch says that critics of his government are “routinely arrested” and monitored with “pervasive domestic surveillance.” On that subject, sort of, Sandberg said during the event that “social media is bad for dictators” and that this is “why Putin took us down.” (Facebook has been blocked in Russia since last week.)
Meta (Facebook) opened an office in Dubai earlier this year and, per the Intercept and Freedom House, has said in its own disclosures that it cooperates with the UAE government to take down user posts that are critical of the state. Sandberg’s appearance, as CNBC mentions, was presented by the luxury goods company Cartier, which is sponsoring the “Women’s Pavilion” component of UAE’s ongoing “Expo 2020” exhibition. HRW has specifically described Expo 2020 as a “sham” intended to distract from the country’s “rampant systemic human rights violations.” (The expo was delayed because of the pandemic.)
The timing of Sandberg’s remarks about supporting free speech and women’s rights is, in one sense—the most obvious sense—hilarious. We owe one to Sheryl Sandberg for giving everyone a good laugh in these hard times. But it’s also useful reminder about how seriously to take the outbreak of corporate concern related to the Ukraine conflict. A variety of major companies are making statements about supporting Ukrainians, and some are suspending operations in Russia. The domino effect has been reminiscent of the statements of social awareness and commitment to action that followed the Capitol riot in 2021 and George Floyd’s death in 2020. After the former, a number of companies said they were withdrawing support from politicians who did not acknowledge the results of the election; after the latter, many promised to help eradicate structural racism.
According to follow-up reporting, including a major feature in the Washington Post, few corporations ended up directly supporting criminal justice reform (albeit with some interesting exceptions, like Microsoft), while financial support for the Republican Party—which is largely responsible for blocking police reform in Congress and recently took the official position that the events of Jan. 6 constituted “legitimate political discourse”—has resumed. One might argue (and no doubt members of corporate governmental relations departments have done so, internally) that this is a necessity for companies that operate within legal contexts created by Republican politicians, conservative judges, etc., just as all the companies that were in Russia to begin with knew all along who its autocratic leader was, and what compromises they were making to earn money there. Freedom, human rights, democracy, extending your company’s reach in the Middle East, fulfilling the United Arab Emirates Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority’s requests to take down posts about the royal family: It’s a balancing act!