- The growing cultural gap between Emiratis and expatriates has become evident with recent cases over behaviour deemed offensive to local sensitivities.
- Image Credit: Gulf News
Dubai: A skyline crammed with magnificent glass structures, plush shopping arcades where fashion aficionados swoop down from world over, bustling nightclubs and suave pubs that eternalise nightlife, pristine beaches and desert resorts where semi-nude men and women get cozy under the splendid sun.
This is the Dubai dream that attracts almost 3 million tourists every year. This is the snapshot of the cosmopolitan city that hosts over 200 nationalities and around 35 religious denominations.
All you need to know about public decency in the UAE
But the dichotomy of its urban face and traditional mindset is more subtle than startling — a point that expatriates and tourists often miss to note with grave consequences.
In the words of Jane Bruce, a British expatriate housewife, "What is visible is the free, modern, glamorous city. You seldom see red lines, though they exist. You need to look carefully to understand."
And now people have begun to scan and scrutinise where these red lines are after a spate of incidents involving the arrest and deportation of couples for indecent behaviour in public.
After the much-publicised beach sex story of the British couple Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors who spent three months behind bars and later deported in July 2008, the debate on how much is too much in Dubai has reached a crescendo with fresh cases surfacing of ‘sexpats' getting into trouble with the laws of the land.
Last week, a couple was arrested and ordered to be deported after an Emirati family allegedly spotted them kissing in a restaurant in Jumeirah Beach Residence during the wee hours.
Many residents who spoke to Gulf News
said authorities should clarify what is acceptable or not in public, and make information on laws on public indecency available for people. The ambiguity surrounding the issue leads to confusion, they noted.
What readers have to say about public display of affection
"I have read on some sites that public display of affection is frowned upon as the UAE is an Islamic country. But how would I know that hugging and kissing my partner at a cinema is offensive? I did not know that I can end up in jail for doing that," said Keith, 31, an Australian events manager who only gave his first name.Grey area
Tagging the same line, Fatma Rashid, 21, an Emirati student said, "Somehow it is okay to wear revealing clothes and consume alcohol but kissing could get you in jail. It sounds like a big contradiction. You either allow people of other cultures to be themselves or not. This grey area in between is not really working."
But legal experts say that the laws on public indecency are not obscure or ambiguous but the way they are enforced is. For instance, Article 358 of the Punitive Law No. 52 of 2006 regarding ‘obscene public acts and violations of public decency' stipulates no less than a six-month jail term would be handed to violators. Article 360 states that "anything that provokes promiscuity" could result in a year's prison term and or a Dh5,000 fine.
Haiel M. Abdul Majeed, experts administration manager at the Judicial Department in Abu Dhabi, said in cases of public indecency, the judgement is to a great extent based on the presiding judge's discretion.
"The articles of the law are flexible and the judge can use his discretionary powers in ordering deportation, jail term, fine or all of the punishments."
In the recent past, the leak of a Code of Conduct apparently prepared by Dubai government's Executive Council proposed rigid restrictions on issues such as partying, playing loud music, wearing revealing clothes, consuming alcohol and the like had caused ripples in Dubai, especially on internet forums.Raised doubts
The document raised doubts about Dubai following suit with Sharjah that banned, among many other things, women from wearing clothes that reveal the stomach and back, and bikinis in public beaches. But the apparent draft document never saw the light of the day, the commonly believed theory being it was floated to gauge the public mood.
Since then the crème de la crème of Emirati society has been making a clarion call urging the government to make its stand clear on the issue of public morality.
Khulood Al Atiyat, Public Relations and Events Director at the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), says Dubai does not want to be seen as a police state.
"When it comes to issues like public display of affection, acceptable dress code etc. we do not want to hand out a book of rules the minute people step out of the plane, and make them feel sceptical. I call it social etiquette that tourists and expatriates are expected to follow so that we create a cohesive society," she said.
"The line dividing freedom and respect is thin and blurred but that is where the role of cultural understanding comes to fore. Every community lives in their own bubble and there are stereotyped perceptions. Here at the SMCCU, we help break down those barriers and encourage a better understanding of the UAE culture."
There were 82 cases filed for public indecency in 2009 in Dubai. The arrest and deportation of some expatriates for inappropriate behaviour have spurred a debate on the relevance of the laws pertaining to public conduct. At the crux of the argument is whether the government should lend more clarity to the existing laws so that residents can avoid being on the wrong side of the law. At the same time, many think Dubai's reputation as a cosmopolitan city should not be compromised in doing so. Anjana Sankar, Senior Reporter, finds out where the grey areas areOpen display: Know the limits
Is it ignorance or effrontery that prompts some expatriates to overstep the boundaries of UAE culture? Many Emiratis who spoke to Gulf News believed it is the latter.
"The information is there if you seek it. There are notices in most shopping malls cautioning people to dress decently but many residents just ignore them. There are people who do vulgar things just to provoke nationals. When we walk up to them and tell them to stop, they mock us," complained Haya Al Mutawa, 29, an Emirati.
Umm Hamsa, an Emirati housewife, said the government should have strictly enforced the law a long time ago.
"It is the utter selfishness of some Western people who want to live here the way they want. If they were in Saudi Arabia, they would not dare to question such laws. I think they are taking advantage of the relaxed rules of Dubai and make a huge fuss when authorities impose even the slightest of restrictions," said the mother of three.
When asked why some nationals resort to the extreme measure of reporting bad behaviour to the police, Mohammad Khamees, 37, an Emirati civil engineer said it is because they "run out of patience".
On the same line, Khulood Al Atiyat (above), Public Relations and Events Director at Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding, said it is a myth that Emirati people do not understand passion and that is why they cannot stand public display of affection.
"We are very passionate people too. But we prefer to keep it private," she said.