Radha Stirling is a leading human rights advocate, crisis manager and policy consultant, focusing on the UAE and the wider Middle East. She is the founder and CEO of the United Kingdom-based organisation Detained in Dubai.
Radha founded Detained in Dubai in 2008, a civil and criminal justice organisation after her friend, Cat Le-Huy, was imprisoned in Dubai. After leading the legal and media campaign that resulted in the exoneration of her friend, she was contacted by other people in the same situation begging for help. Radha had just finished a crash course in UAE culture, law and practice and decided to help out if she could. The requests kept rolling in and she responded to them, learning more and more as she took on more cases. She trained with local lawyers, prosecutors and judges to learn as much as she could and she also learned on the job, case by case. “I became the ‘go to’ authority for media commentary, for lawyers requiring experts and clients in catastrophes. I took on some of the biggest multimillion dollar business disputes with corrupt government owned corporations and won,” she states.
Detained in Dubai and Radha’s simultaneous growth
Radha says that this wasn’t a job to her, but it rather felt like a calling, and she was the only one who specialised in this field, who had the experience and capacity to win. She genuinely felt for each and every person who came to her for help but as the organisation attracted more and more recognition, even more cases rolled in. That’s when Radha decided she needed help. She partnered with law firms and agencies and took on law interns and staff to ensure they could handle the case load and the advocacy and analysis required to continue to lobby.
Detained in Dubai had gained such a positive word of mouth reputation that they were forced to expand when clients from other Gulf nations requested help. Suddenly, they were helping people with issues in Qatar, Saudi and Bahrain which soon expanded worldwide, whether Egypt, Korea or the United States of America.
“One of our major campaigns from the very beginning has been the reform of Interpol and extradition procedures. They have been heavily abused by member states and have resulted in severe human rights violations against victims. We advocate for legal accountability and for the abolition of diplomatic protections that are currently in place in most countries. Without accountability, countries are able to practice state harassment without consequence and this kind of abuse is all too tempting,” says Radha.
As Detained in Dubai grew, so has Radha’s experience in working with foreign governments, senators, MP’s and diplomats who are grateful for her guidance in navigating the Gulf terrain. She has been a regular speaker at think tanks and policy groups and vows to continue to promote fair and just treatment and the accountability of states, corporations and institutions.
The beginning of Radha’s career in the legal industry
As a young girl, Radha was fascinated by injustice and she intended to pursue a career in law. She started out at Pilgrim Geddes, a commercial law firm in Australia when she decided pursuing a traditional legal career as a barrister was not her calling. “I didn’t want to spend half of my life in chambers or in court following rules, protocols and restrictions. I wanted freedom,” she states.
After she moved to London at 18, Radha started a digital media company and worked with Endemol on a number of television shows and Formula 1’s grand scale website. At the time, she employed around twenty staff members, collaborating with the onsite Endemol internal team which included Cat Le-Huy. The moment he was arrested, her innate desire for justice kicked in. She worked all day and late through the night to ensure his safe return. “I didn’t know this would be the catalyst to a career change. I certainly wouldn’t say that was the beginning of my career though. I had studied and learned everything I could about business management, marketing and public relations from a very young age but detained in Dubai encompassed every aspect of my knowledge. It allowed me to apply everything from staff management and business operations to law to media. Every day felt like a true blessing and an accomplishment. I had found a career to match my childhood ideals,” she exclaims.
Radha feels equally satisfied when she helps someone in private than when she is standing in front of Parliament, the United Nations, or announcing a successful outcome to the media. She claims that her biggest accomplishments come from the lives she feels she directly impacts on a regular basis, the friendships and relationships she’s cultivated with clients, colleagues, family and friends.
Core Responsibilities as CEO of Detained in Dubai
Radha is responsible for the execution of strategies that deliver successful results for clients. This could be winning a civil lawsuit, defending against an extradition request, negotiating or mediating with a foreign government or opposition law firm, implementing a plan to protect individuals in detention from abuse and torture, ensuring diplomatic and governmental intervention in cases of legal abuse and promoting long term reform in their own as well as the foreign governments who are responsible for these abuses.
“I am “committed” to this goal and have founded sister organisations Due Process International, IPEX Reform and the Gulf in Justice Podcast to further promote these endeavours,” says Radha, who describes herself as an “inventive” individual.
Being successful varies at an individual level
The feeling of success and worth for Radha comes from problem solving. She prides herself on it. She states that there is nothing more satisfying than picking up the phone and hearing “Your client has been deleted from the Interpol database” or “The prosecution dropped the case, I’m free to go”. “Having that direct impact on someone’s life and those of their families is enormously satisfying,” she exclaims.
“Being in crisis management, some of the calls I receive are from people who are going through extremely painful and unjust situations. They are desperate for help and a solution” and Radha claims to be equally desperate to apply her problem-solving skills and get solutions for them. Every single time she helps someone to freedom, she is reminded that freedom is one of the most significant human needs. “I am reminded to appreciate my own freedom and to never take it for granted,” she says.
There is no single way to describe success. For Radha, it’s the combination of her own freedom combined with the satisfying content she feels by contributing to positive reform at governmental and legislative levels, and saving people from injustice, abuse of power and human rights violations. “If I did not feel my work was extremely valuable, I wouldn’t feel successful” she states.
Challenges make you stronger and wiser
Going up against a state is inevitably going to bring immense challenges, especially when dealing with gulf states notorious for lawlessness and human rights violations. From the moment her friend had been wrongfully arrested, Radha had to learn the inner workings of a foreign country with a judicial system with seemingly no rules, where bribery and corruption were rife and where there was zero accountability for wrongdoing.
In 2008 when she publicly chastised the UAE on major international media platforms, she became a threat to the regime and a target herself. The UAE was marketing itself as a luxury tourist destination and a great tax-free place to do business. They had not been subject to scrutiny over legal and human rights abuses until Radha’s friend was detained. The country was investing millions into marketing and advertising in Western nations and it was a time when journalists and politicians were sceptical that their gulf ally would commit such atrocities against expats and visitors.
To ensure cases of abuse were thoroughly investigated, Radha needed to have significant evidence and testimony, not just one example. She stepped up to the challenge and as a result, had directly influenced significant legal reform in the Emirates which she hopes one day, will become a safe and fair place for foreign nationals to live and visit.
Since then, the organisation has had to deal with bomb threats, hacking attempts and slander from the UAE. Most of these challenges arose after she brought the case of Princess Latifa to the international media following her abduction from a US flagged yacht in international waters. Her father, the ruler of Dubai, had thwarted her escape attempt and was desperate to stop talk of the incident. The government of Dubai tried to stop their campaign to free her, deceiving media and even sending professional hecklers to their press conference.
But it wasn’t just Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Saud Al Qassimi was on the other end of one of Radha’s client’s lawsuits when an Israeli spy company was sent after her. “When battling foreign countries, the challenges are endless but that only makes winning more satisfying. Whether I am defending attacks or overcoming bureaucracy to motivate diplomats and governments to help, challenges always make me stronger,” she states.
If you enjoy your profession, you don’t need to balance it
“I love what I do. Although I am professional, I don’t see it as my working life. I think that’s the recipe for success and determination,” says Radha.
As part of some of their media campaigns, Radha will have to work in multiple time zones, do a TV or radio interview late at night or at an ungodly hour of the morning. As a crisis manager, when a crisis hits, she has no choice. She’s made some lifelong friends through work as a result of the bond created when dealing with these situations and has somehow merged work with pleasure which she does not believe to be a cardinal sin.
Radha’s daughters, 23 and 17, are wholly supportive and have grown up in the midst of the action. Not only does she discuss the details of cases with them, but they have been involved in press conferences, client meetings and learning about the fine details of what she does. They accompany her on trips to Washington DC and abroad to take in as much as they can. “Their involvement and keenness have made it much easier to balance the personal and professional. We try to get to the gym during the day, tennis, horse riding, out on a hike or some other outdoor adventure. I make sure to go out with close friends as much as possible and always try to turn work travel into a little break. Again though, I love meeting my clients, journalists, lawyers and politicians. This, to me, is my personal life,” she explains.
Radha’s staff have been with her for years, one of them going on eight. They are amazingly self-motivated and get satisfaction from being able to help shape the organisation. Radha states that she appreciates each and every one of them and regularly involves them in decisions as well as giving them freedom and flexibility. She relies on them, respects their knowledge and values them immensely. “I am very lucky. I would not have achieved half of what I have without the contribution of my trustworthy and dedicated dream team,” she proudly states.
Plans for the future of Detained in Dubai
Radha says that she has not achieved everything she ever dreamed of because she never stops dreaming. “Almost every morning, I come up with new ideas and goals. As I knock each achievement off the list, I will replace it with another, probably bigger goal. There is no point in my life where I will ever say “job done”,” she further states.
She is currently working on a number of large projects, litigations, class actions and exposés that she expects will cause serious reform in a number of key areas that they have identified as the primary causes of abuse. Radha’s goal is to make changes at a higher level that will prevent and protect individuals from falling prey to a flawed system, rather than having to save them on an individual basis.
Radha’s advice to aspiring lawyers is: Choose a field and a path that you love, that doesn’t feel like work at all, then go after it without hesitation and without creating a hundred boxes you feel need to be ticked before doing so.