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'New Conservatism' in Dubai

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: UAE Public Opinion Dubai
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With increased frequency international media have carried accounts of visitors and expats falling foul of the UAEs laws governing codes of behaviour and public decency.  This is having potentially negative impact for Dubai.
In recent decades Sharjah has had a reputation for enforcing its rules aimed at preventing pubic expression of affection, including hand-holding, and of prohibiting alcohol anywhere, including tourist hotels; now, in the name of public decency, Sharjah is banning the Indian garment, the lungi.  Abu Dhabi has had an image suggesting that its attitudes on such matters also were closer to those of Saudi Arabia; while the reality in the capital is changing, moving toward Dubais, commentators have not updated the phrases they use. 
Dubai, however, is current media focus in this morals context.  In 2009 international media spotlighted several Dubai cases illustrating how different adultery rules were from those of the west.  At the start of 2010, a newly-engaged British couple visited Jumeirah Police Station to report an alleged sexual assault, only to find themselves being questioned about their sexual relations outside wedlock.  Sentenced to a month in prison and deportation, they subsequently accepted a reduced sentence and gratefully fled back to the UK. 
Other westerners and visitors find themselves accused of using abusive language and other unacceptable behavior.  Most recently the press has been closely following the story of Charlotte Adams and Ayman Najafi, another young British couple who face one months imprisonment and deportation for alcohol abuse and inappropriate conduct in a public place - kissing. The list of transgressors is not exclusively western.  An Indian couple got caught up in a court case that exposed their enticing text messages to each other. 
When a Dubai official attempted to impose a categorical ban on use of alcohol in restaurant cooking, despite its being flagged on menus, local complaint in the travel industry was sufficiently loud that the official quickly rescinded his order.  Yet the attempt to rein in cuisine added to the Dubai is going conservative story.   
These cases have attracted attention because they seem to be at odds with Dubais image of tolerance of its large expat population and its desire to appeal to tourism.  The world has long understood that Dubai as host will tolerate behaviour generally accepted elsewhere provided it does not blatantly offend local laws.  This tolerance has been part of Dubais core appeal, distinguishing it from the alternatives of Riyadh or Doha. 
Against this backdrop, some commentators now seem to have decided to link the dots by connecting financial support from Abu Dhabi to Dubais shrinking tolerance.  Media attribute a new Dubai conservatism to conditions that Abu Dhabi attached to its loans.
While law enforcement in Dubai appears to be less tolerant, for whatever reason, media are accentuating this as a crackdown.  Whether in Dubai or Europe or the US, the media, herd-like in their competition, pursue prevailing narratives, generating ever more public interest but distorting reality at the same time.  Four years ago, Dubai appeared to be beset by foreign worker unrest, and while the initial cases were real, reporters tended to exaggerate the situation by looking continually for examples to illustrate the broader story.  Similarly, two years ago a spate of reports put international visitors on the wrong end of Dubai justice for possessing the minutest quantities of banned drugs: over the counter drugs containing codeine, cannabis in the treads of shoes, and even poppy seeds.  Coverage of the latest series of morals arrests seems to fit this pattern. 
Image and reality may be clashing in Dubai but the emirate may have a long term interest in sorting out this situation in order to redress the balance between the two.  
                                                    Angus Taverner


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