FOCUS:Dubai's Moral Crackdown Is Kiss Of Death For Tourism
Wednesday, Mar 17, 2010
By Stefania Bianchi
Of ZAWYA DOW JONES
DUBAI (Zawya Dow Jones)--Two British holidaymakers in Dubai are the latest victims of the emirate's moral crackdown, facing a month in jail for a kiss. The sentence is another sign of Dubai's drive to enforce Muslim values, at the risk of turning away the western tourists who fill its hotels.
"Dubai is in danger of gaining a reputation as a place where you can be arrested for minor incidents," said Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents, which represents more than 5000 travel operators in the U.K. "If this type of attitude continues, Dubai's tourism industry will be harmed."
Dubai has grown to become the Persian Gulf's most popular destination due to its liberal tolerance of alcohol and partying in a region that's better known for its austere religious values. Billions of tourism dollars may be under threat as Dubai tightens up.
Tourism is crucial to Dubai and accounts for a fifth of the emirate's economy. Close to 41 million passengers traveled through Dubai International Airport last year, making it one of world's fastest growing. Emirates Airline, Dubai's flagship carrier, indirectly contributes just over $10 billion to the sheikdom's economy each year.
A spokesperson for Dubai's Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing couldn't be reached for comment.
Brits Ayman Najafi and Charlotte Adams were arrested last November after an Emirati woman sitting with her children reported them to the police, alleging they were kissing passionately and touching each other. This week, the pair who are currently on bail, appealed against a one-month jail sentence and deportation.
Their case is the third high-profile example in recent years of U.K. nationals getting into hot water with the emirate's laws on public decency. In 2008, a British couple were arrested after allegedly having sex on a beach. The two received suspended sentences after facing charges of sex outside marriage, drunkenness and offending public decency.
On the whole, Dubai's locals are unapologetic.
"People need to learn more about Dubai and its culture before coming here," said Mishaal Al Gergawi, a local commentator in Dubai. "People talk about the world being a global village, but each house has its rules."
At one of Dubai's five-star luxury hotels, not far from where Najafi and Adams were caught kissing, there is already a sense of caution amongst tourists.
"We were worried when we heard about the kissing case and we did think twice about coming to Dubai," said Alan Thompson, a 52-year old construction manager from Derbyshire who is on holiday with his wife, Sue, and daughters Katie and Rebecca. "It makes you rethink quite intuitive actions. We're quite a tactile family so I've even worried about putting my arm around my daughter."
Sue, who is taking hormone replacement therapy, says she was worried that she wouldn't be allowed into the emirate with her medication.
"I went to see my doctor before I came to Dubai to get a letter of consent for the drugs I'm taking," she said.
Dubai's tax-free lifestyle, year-round sunshine and high standards of living have also lured Western expatriates in recent years. Foreign workers now account for about 85% of Dubai's residents, leaving a minority of locals or Emiratis, some of whom are unhappy with the behavior of some of the Westerners.
More than 100,000 British expatriates live in the United Arab Emirates, mostly in Dubai, according to the British Embassy. Around 850,000 Brits visited the emirate in 2008, almost double than in 2006, according to Dubai's Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing. Proportionally, Britons are more likely to be arrested in the U.A.E. than any other country in the world, according to travel advice on the U.K.'s Foreign & Commonwealth Office Web site.
BASTION OF IMMORALITY
Dubai finds itself in a difficult position promoting itself as one of the world's top tourist destinations, whilst upholding strict Islamic laws. Although tourists can enjoy most activities, there are laws regarding alcohol, drugs, sex outside marriage and dress.
"Dubai is looked on as a bastion of immorality within the wider Gulf region," said Jim Krane, author of 'City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism' and an expert of the U.A.E. "Abu Dhabi is another influence on Dubai. With Abu Dhabi as the rising star, there is more pressure on Dubai to live up to the morals of a Gulf Islamic state."
Oil-rich Abu Dhabi, traditionally more conservative than Dubai, was forced to bailout its poorer cousin after a $100 billion mountain of debt accumulated by building many of the lavish tourism projects got out of control.
"Dubai has to play carefully. Social freedoms are one Dubai's key competitive advantages and if it loses them, it will be to Abu Dhabi's advantage," said Krane. Both emirates are competing to attract international visitors.
Local media Wednesday reported that an Indian couple who were cabin crew for Emirates had been jailed for three months for sending each other sexually explicit text messages. An Emirates Airline spokesperson was unable to comment on the case.
"If this sort of thing becomes routine news, Dubai may face a problem," said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. "However, if Dubai doesn't set out a marker for what foreigners can and can't do the Dubai authorities will have a problem domestically. It has to find a happy medium."