Saturday, 12 July 2008

Dubai: Burkahs, big bucks and bikinis

Quelle surprise! Dubai has been exposed by The Sun as a hot bed of drunken debauchery. News of embarrassing ex-pat Michelle Palmer exposing herself on Jumeirah beach has prompted the nation's favourite tabloid to investigate. About time too. According to their report it's all burkahs and bonking on the beach over there - and in a Muslim country! The paper reports that Westerners flock to the UAE for their fix of sun, sea and sex.

Cold, hard, cash more like. Everyone's there for the tax-free earning potential. The place is awash with homesick 20 and 30 somethings who have sold their souls in return for getting rid of their student debt or escaping the credit crunch. It's no wonder Michelle and pals are drinking themselves into oblivion - there's nothing else to do. Remember, this is a place where people pay to jog with a fitness instructor around the air-conditioned interior of the world's largest shopping mall because the outside temperature - the desert - would finish them off in minutes.

I was seconded to Dubai for two months last year. I couldn't get out of there quick enough; suffice it to say the Emirate state challenges Australia for the title "The Land that Culture Forgot."

And while the media has been quick to refer to Dubai as the Las Vegas of the Middle East or the next Ibiza it actually has much more in common with Switzerland. Stay with me on this one.

For a start you leave your religion and ethics at the arrivals gate.

Yes, it's a Muslim state - but only just. It's certainly not Saudi Arabia, and in the time I was there I never saw, or even heard, of a woman being asked to cover herself up.

The same principal applies with alcohol. Dubai is definitely not a dry state, no matter what the rules might say. Booze can be served in hotels - not just to guests -which means there are essentially pubs and clubs on every corner.

As for ethics, well if you think that slave labour is an acceptable price to pay for the 24 hour building sites that support the property boom, then fine. But I regret ever having had anything to do with it.

So why are the rules so lax? Well, this is where the Switzerland comparison starts to make sense.

As long as the ex-pats aren't copulating on the beach a la Palmer then the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to behaviour that would land you in trouble in other Muslim countries - in much the same way that the Swiss don't ask where your billions came from when you open a bank account.

I've also worked in Switzerland, and upon arrival it struck me that Dubai has that same international appeal. It's called money.

According to the FCO the UAE population breaks down as follows: Arab (55%), South Asian (28%), Iranian (8%), other expatriates (9%).
These are 2007 stats, and I'd be astonished if the expat figure doesn't rise when the figures are updated for '08. As for the 55% Arabic population, they're either the eye-wateringly rich who live in Knightsbridge for most of the year, or they're residents of the most traditional of the UAE states, Sharjah.

It doesn't matter where you are in the food chain, the unspoken understanding is that everyone's in Dubai to work. Minimum wage Malaysian waitresses, and well paid Australian engineers alike come to Dubai to get rich quick, and then get out.

Running out of oil, Dubai has taken drastic steps to reinvent itself as the power house of the Middle East. An international hub which welcomes Westerners, and anyone else that wants to do business, Dubai has fast been positioning itself as the region's economic capital with the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX) doing a tidy trade thanks to the runaway success of the Sukuk.

In real layman's terms the Sukuk is a form of Islamic bond which can be traded within Islamic rules - basically it gets around the issue of debt and interest - but has crucially helped to open up the DIFX to international investors. The details of Sukuk trading aren't important here, my point is that it illustrates the extent to which Dubai is prepared to marry east with west to make money.

During my time in Dubai I was shocked by the lack of news reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the complete silence about the Iranian hostage crisis. Dubai doesn't do bad news, and you certainly won't see anything in print that suggests that the Middle East could be an unstable kind of place, because that could scare off those all important investors.

And so the same logic applies to relaxing the rules for foreigners. While I was there I felt that as a Westerner I would be indulged up to a certain point because Dubai doesn't want to go and get itself labelled as 50 lashes kind of state.

Something tells me Michelle won't be spending too long in the clink.


Old Reprobate said...

Excellent, petal... well written & cogently argued.... you should try to place this somewhere big! X

Lalalaura said...

David Jones' take on it for The Daily Mail. Interesting, but I don't agree with the point about the Arabic population being victimised and given the worst jobs - in my experience they don't need to work.
I also read an article a while ago suggesting that the UAE was paying protection money to terrorists to prevent an attack. I'll try to look that up again