‘Sexpats in trouble again in Dubai” is how one web portal summarised last week’s recent allegation of explicit text messaging. There was also the incident of public kissing involving a British couple in Jumeirah Beach Residences earlier this month. The truth is that this case and others that have occurred over the past several months, including allegations of rape at a five-star hotel, as well as fornication on a beach, demonstrate the ambiguity of decency laws in the UAE.
Last year The National reported on a story that originally appeared in the Dubai-based Arabic daily Emarat Alyoum. The latter had run a full front page story about the potential introduction of a public decency law by the Dubai government. The draft law, as it was reported then, intended to clarify what was deemed unacceptable public behaviour. Included in the list of inappropriate displays of physical affection were kissing and holding hands. Playing loud music, dancing and nudity could also potentially land the offender into trouble with the law, including a prison sentence. The law wasn’t introduced, however, and may well have been a “teaser” to gauge public reaction by the authorities.
As early as September 2001, Sharjah officially issued a public decency law stipulating that men could not wear very short shorts, go into women’s only areas or walk around bare-chested or in their undergarments in public areas. Women could not expose their stomachs or backs, wear tight or transparent clothing or short skirts. Failure to adhere to these guidelines could potentially deprive the offender the right to enter government buildings.
More recently, shopping malls in the country have taken it upon themselves to affix posters requiring shoppers not to kiss and avoid “public displays of affection”. It is no surprise then that various establishments have come up with their own guidelines. Except for Sharjah’s rules, there is a vacuum of information regarding what is and isn’t officially acceptable in the country – “officially” being the operative word.
Abu Dhabi is embarking on a major programme that is set to place it among the cultural capitals of the world within the next few years. The Guggenheim and Louvre, both of which will open world-class museums in the capital, have been assured that the work they choose to display will be “beyond censorship”, and that everything that appears at their shows in Europe and North America will be allowed to show here.
And while most of what is shown in these institutions is in good taste and conforms with Emirati values, it is difficult to imagine, no matter how liberal one is, that the edgier exhibitions depicting sexual themes and violence will be easily displayed to the public. It is time that the UAE has a serious conversation with itself about what is and isn’t acceptable in public. It is no longer possible to expect that these issues will sort themselves through a policy of ambiguity. Emiratis must also be brought in to the conversation as stakeholders in the future and shape of their country.
Ideally, this is the role of the Federal National Council, a body that I discuss often in my writings because it should be the voice of the citizens. And perhaps in its absent-mindedness or lack of interest, the local fourth estate can play the role of the parliament by debating what citizens deem acceptable. For instance, Mishaal Al Gergawi bravely referred to what he called “Dubai’s Unwritten Social Contract” in a recent article in the light of the alleged hotel rape case.
I have been told that Abu Dhabi Police started handing out local decency guidelines to visitors at the airport. Well-informed tourists, in addition to keeping out of potential trouble with the law, will probably enjoy their stay in the country knowing their rights and the accepted boundaries. And as an Emirati, I prefer to know my rights and boundaries even if I were to disagree with them. Although the UAE is turning 40 next year, it is still very much a work in progress as a nation. When the federation was formed in 1971, tourism was not a major industry, while today about 10 million tourists visit the country each year, contributing billions of dollars to the economy.
The National has reported that personal judgment is used by Abu Dhabi police officers in matters of public indecency. Clearly, such a model of self regulation, however successful, is unsustainable in the long-run. It must be supplemented by a nationwide policy on what is and isn’t acceptable for visitors, residents and nationals to do in public. One must also keep in mind that however unacceptable public displays of affection are, they do not constitute a hazard to others’ lives, such as drunk driving. The latter is a criminal offence, whereas public kissing is a misdemeanour; how can both be punishable by a jail sentence?
What the “sexpat” cases are instigating is a long overdue self-reflection and conversation that the UAE needs to have with itself about what it wants to be. Indeed, we need to talk.
This article was originally published in The National on March 21, 2010.