Thursday, 10 September 2009

Dubai’s social tolerance tested

Source: The Financial Times 7 September 09


At an exhibition of rare Korans in Dubai’s financial district, an expatriate who should have known better flutters around the gallery, far too much of her bosom on display alongside the holy books.
Unwise in any situation in Dubai, her deeply cut dress was even more inappropriate given the subject matter of the exhibition and its timing during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
It is typical of Dubai that none of the guests chided her for the fleshy faux-pas, instead concentrating on averting their gaze during the Islamic year’s most spiritual month.
This religious time of togetherness brings into focus the way Dubai’s tolerant allure sits uneasily with an increasing sense among the native locals that their culture is vanishing into the multinational mélange of this entrepôt.
As the liberal Gulf city-state’s economy worsens, analysts say this tension may push the authorities to enforce even more laws grounded in the mores of the conservative Islam to which most locals adhere.
But whether it is separated women found guilty of adultery or transit passengers imprisoned for possession of a tiny speck of marijuana, the zero tolerance approach taken by the authorities sits at odds with advertisements portraying the city as a playground for tourists.
“Our laws need to be made clear to those who come here, but we are still quite liberal compared to the rest of the region, and maybe a lack of awareness of our cultural norms pushes people to abuse the level of tolerance they find here,” says Najla al-Awadhi, a member of the UAE’s advisory parliament. “But individual cases shouldn’t overshadow the UAE’s tolerance.”
Some analysts believe this tolerance is waning and forecast that the recession will prompt further social tightening as the economic crisis damages the government’s legitimacy.
“They are now struggling to keep portraying themselves as successful CEOs, so have had to ramp up their perceived commitments to religion, culture and Arab identity,” says Christopher Davidson, a senior lecturer at the school of government and international affairs at Durham University.
“As for the Emirati population, I think more pressure will be placed on the government to deliberalise. [There is] no longer a no-questions-asked mandate for a liberalising autocracy that kept bringing in cash.”
Laws and directives have explicitly dealt with social behaviour, including jail for profanity, public drunkenness and even fines for spreading rumours.
The government has re-affirmed the use of Arabic as the official language as English has become the lingua franca and Emirati families fret that younger generations are losing a grip on their mother tongue.
Jail terms or fines for “indecent acts”, such as married couples kissing or unmarried couples holding hands, reached its apogee in the infamous sex-on-the-beach scandal this year when a drunken British couple was jailed after being caught on a popular beach in flagrante delicto.
In the past foreigners would advise their fellow expatriates about appropriate do’s and don’t’s, said Wael al-Sayegh, director of Alghaf, a cultural consulting group.
But the entry of hundreds of thousands of foreigners over the past decade, as skyrocketing oil prices sparked a speculative bubble of business activity, has ended such notions of community. “Therefore a more formal channel to communicate these societal intricacies is appropriate – without imposing one’s culture on someone else,” he said.
New arrivals in the city can be taken aback by signs in shopping malls advising female customers to cover their knees and shoulders. A local bank this summer said all female staff, including non-Muslims, would have to wear the traditional Gulf all-encompassing black cloak and headscarf.
Some get confused about the mixed messages behind warnings against the consumption of alcohol, even though the hotel attached to a shopping centre will be serving beer and may also host prostitutes.
But what cynical expatriates define as rank hypocrisy is defended by locals, who say their society is walking a fine line between fostering tolerance to attract foreigners while trying to protect the identity of an indigenous population that is now outnumbered 10 to one by outsiders. Nowhere is this balance more on display than at the city’s surprisingly busy hotels, packed with tourists lured by special summer recession deals, who have to eat and drink behind closed doors during daylight hours to comply with Ramadan regulations.
While decency laws are most often applied against skimpy dress, the opposite is the case at the Wild Wadi aquapark, which provides thrill-seekers with a photographic demonstration of unsuitable bathing clothes.
But the management are not worried about thongs; they are warding off the legions of Gulf visitors who bathe in full-length burkas. Instead, the park encourages the so-called Burkini, modest swimwear that conceals flesh from male eyes.

1 comment:

  1. Dubai was a beacon of hope for those living in the relatively stricter GCC countries like Kuwait etc.
    This soul searching by Dubai is going to trigger a lot of " I told you so " elsewhere...