Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The United Arab Emirates: "By shades, meaner and darker by the day."

The following post is written by "Wayne Parker," a friend in Dubai. It was prompted by a new and reactionary United Arab Emirates crackdown under which 41 men and women have been arrested so far: "cross-dressing," they call it. It is an offence for a woman to wear pants, or for a man to wear a necklace, a bracelet, or a ring. Punishment can mean a prison term, deportation, or “psychological treatment and social counseling” for women.

For some time now, Dubai has been trading on its reputation as a shining example of Arab tolerance - a rebuke to the proposition that Arab regimes are incapable of being cosmopolitan, modern, and accommodating. But the UAE, Wayne writes - and even Dubai - are "turning, by shades, meaner and darker by the day."

One of the most surprising things I discovered about Dubai, was how very like a Canadian city it was. Anyone used to driving on the 401 in Ontario, and stopping at Tim Horton’s and Wendy’s along the way would feel entirely at home on the six to fourteen lane highways with drive-thru McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. Where in Canada you would go to a Loblaws, here you go to a Lulus. Instead of Wal-Mart, there’s Carrefour, and while there is no Home Hardware, Ace Hardware does just fine. Sadly, you won’t find a Tim Horton’s anywhere, but Second Cup is easy enough to find, and in both places you will find a multiplicity of cultures, and even bilingual government services.

In the malls, it is hard to walk more than a few feet before bumping into packs of youths who look like they just stepped out of a Black Eyes Peas video - an experience not at all unfamiliar to anyone who has passed through Yorkdale or the Eaton Centre.

One of the ways Dubai differs from Canadian cities is the speed at which you can acquire a parking pass, or apply for a permit. Simply walk into any clean, spacious municipality office, tap a touch screen, grab a ticket, take a seat in a comfortable chair, and wait (a very short time) for your number to be called. For those used to standing in long, sweaty queues that snake through a shifting maze of stanchions and ropes, endless form filling, and the seemingly gleefully vindictive unhelpfulness so commonly found at places like Nathan Phillips Square, the experience is nothing short of a revelation. Even if I do feel nostalgic for the disservice and torpor of home, I only need head on down to the Canadian consulate, where they’re more than happy to mix up your paperwork and turn a deaf ear to your requests.

In short, any visitor here would be forgiven for thinking that Dubai was an entirely modern and westernized place, and mostly it is. When Friday hits, cars and flights from Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar flood in to take advantage of the many malls, hotels, resorts, and other amenities available, such as the LCBO-like liquor stores, the prostitutes of every nationality, and soon, franchises of the MGM Grand and the Bellagio.

But there is another side to this story. For Canadians used to notions of compromise, change, and fairness, it can be hard to truly comprehend the deep seated fundamentalist core before which all outward displays of progressivism are but a thin veneer.

As the boom ended, so did Dubai’s easy-going and progressive nature. According to the Melbourne Age, 91 Australians have recently been imprisoned, many without charge. A few weeks ago the government telecom was caught red handed trying to spy on Blackberry users with intrusive spyware used to read private e-mails. And as Dubai based blogger Seabee has reported on his blog Life in Dubai, “the Ministry of Social Affairs has launched a campaign called "Excuse me, I’m a girl" to combat a trend of girls cross-dressing as men.”

Thus far 41 men and women have been arrested for this crime, which carries a sentence of deportation or prison, and the provision of “psychological treatment and social counseling,” for women. In a nutshell, they lock up pants-wearing in the nut house until they learn how to act like “real” girls. Mind you, men aren’t that much better off, since “cross-dressing” can include the wearing of necklaces, bracelets, and rings.

As the UAE has recently managed to launch their first satellite, and has bought a chunk of Virgin Galactic, including stating their intent to develop a space launch facility on UAE soil, this reactionary turn should be very worrisome - a fantastically rich, space faring nation, with cutting edge technology, is turning, by shades, meaner and darker by the day.

The UAE is one of the (very) few Middle Eastern nations that not only educates women, but provides them equal opportunities to work and participate in society. Dubai has long led the way in this regard. It is also one of the few places in the Arab Middle East that has proven that civil society, and the respect for law, can flourish in an Arab state.

As it was with Afghanistan many years ago, it's now, in the early days of the backward slide, that we should start paying attention.


Blogger Graham said...

Dubai's retreat from reason is somewhat disheartening, given its relative "civil society"-type advantages over most Arabian Gulf states. Most of the examples in the _Khaleej Times_ article come from neighboring Emirates Sharjah and UAQ, which have some autonomy in the pursuit of daft laws. Dubai-bash when appropriate, but not every time (see http://www.uel.ac.uk/risingeast/essays/2009-06-03.htm)

2:14 AM  

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