Sunday, 28 June 2009

Dubai's debate on morality has only just begun

From Gulf News, 27th June 09. The writer is Mishaal Al Gergawi, an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE.
In an interview to Gulf News last week, Major General Khamis Mattar Al Mazeina, Deputy Chief of Dubai Police, said that it is not the duty of police to interrogate or interfere with couples in Dubai, but that they would intervene only if they are spotted committing obscene actions.
These comments come after a number of incidents of public indecency, which in turn prompted the British Foreign Office to issue a travel advisory for its citizens.
This reminds me of an old story of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) where he sent three men on separate visits to the Levant. When they returned the first said that he found it to be a land of faith and knowledge and the prophet replied that he was right. The second said that he found it to be a land of decadence and debauchery and the prophet replied that he was right too. The third said that he found it to be a land of trade and commerce and the prophet replied that he was right as well.
When he was asked how come they were all right, he said each of them found what they were looking for.
The stock to be taken from Al Mazeina is straight-forward; Dubai continues to be a city of tolerance. There are many cultures that continue to co-exist harmoniously in Dubai and the very reason for that is this tradition of tolerance.
Everyone agrees that culture is not static and is an ever-evolving process; however, there is a general norm of decency which must be observed by the inhabitants of the city. This has always been the case.
However, the last few years, which witnessed an incredible influx of migrants in a short period of time, overwhelmed nationals and long-term residents just as much.
And in the midst of the boom there was just no time to inform the new arrivals of the values of the city; some may even dare say that these values may have seemed momentarily un-interpretable to the nationals and long-term residents too.
The city will continue to grow and its doors will remain open to all who want to be part of the social phenomena that are Dubai. Yet change must be at a pace which can be absorbed by all the stakeholders of the city.
Having said that and post the crisis, the city is under invisible internal pressure to communicate its identity in a clearer way; it must define itself through new mediums and in an evolving context.
This goes beyond cultural development through the establishment of a sustainable arts programme, the enforcement of accountability through a new set of legislations and independent regulatory bodies or even the development of strong education and healthcare services. This goes to the fundamental purpose of developing a specific and strong identity which recognises its zeitgeist.
Having said that, an issue that bothers many of us in the city is a lot more immediate than the debate on public display of affection and the need to dress modestly and respectfully of the UAE's culture.
It is Thursday night and I decide to have dinner at an old school Italian restaurant in one of the older hotels on Shaikh Zayed Road. I walk into the restaurant and notice a large number of ladies in their mid-twenties. They are from East Africa, China and Eastern Europe. They are eager to find a date for the evening... for a fee.
I believe the proliferation of this phenomenon in prominent areas such as Shaikh Zayed Road is unprecedented. It has historically been isolated to other - dare I say it - less affluent areas in the past. The fact that this new area has become prevalent with this kind of behaviour is a very strong concern for the city as a whole and the police must make it a priority to crack down on it; perhaps a much more immediate concern than a pair of random intoxicated expatriates on a post-brunch short affair.
Another unfortunate issue which falls more under miscommunication than mistreatment is the unfortunate case of Raffi Nernekian.
Last summer Raffi bought a cancer awareness T-shirt from the Marc Jacobs store in New York. The T-shirt which is a collaborative effort between NYU Dermatology and Marc Jacobs shows a nude celebrity covering her intimate parts.
Raffi wore the T-shirt in Dubai and following a man taking offence to it, was arrested by the police and subsequently sentenced to one month in prison and exile from Dubai for indecent exposure.
While this sentencing is very much according to the law it could also have been an opportunity to explain what is offensive and what is not to someone to whom these distinctions may not be clear. It has, however, transformed into a very disturbing experience for Raffi and his family.
I will continue to commend the Dubai Police on their work so far and I will always say that they are one of the most civilised and helpful law enforcement agencies in the region, if not the world.
However, it is our belief that our agency can continue to improve and excel even further, not our lack of satisfaction with it which leads us to be critical of it, and continue to expect further developments.

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