Saturday, August 14, 2010
Keeping up appearances
Dubai may appear cosmopolitan and modern to the outsider, but Muslim traditions still prevail in the Arab emirate. Break the rules and you'll pay the price.
“Let’s just say if your dress was any shorter you might be insulting the Arabs.” This was the advice an Irish embassy representative in the UAE gave me when I quizzed him about etiquette in Dubai. Fortunately I am not easily offended and heeded his advice in good humour, swiftly changing from my dress into more appropriate attire. Other foreigners, however, are not as understanding of the customs in Muslim populated holiday destinations. Most recently a British tourist stripped down to her bikini in a Dubai shopping mall after a group of Emirati women approached her to declare she was dressed inappropriately. Rather than respect the tradition (and the signs all over the public shopping areas) that covering up is obligatory, the infuriated Brit decided to make a stance there and then. She shed her clothes and stood in her bikini much to the shock of other shoppers and horrified locals. She was consequently arrested and taken to a police cell, where charges against her were later dropped. If she had any sense, however, she would realise in Arab territory you do not mess with the law, nor try to oppose it. After all this is a place where you can be sentenced to death for carrying drugs or stoned to death for murder. Prison terms are also handed out for situations that we may regard as genuinely sweet gestures in Western society. A kiss could be seen as an inappropriate display of affection and anything more amorous than this could land you in a prison cell for a night or longer. This was proven when the British couple involved in the infamous “sex on the beach” scandal in Dubai last year were charged, fined and given a month’s jail sentence.
The number of Irish tourists to Muslim tourist destinations like Dubai and Abu Dhabi is on the constant rise while the Irish ex-pat community in the UAE has grown significantly in recent years, now totalling four thousand. However all signs indicate the Irish have not caused much disruption since their take up in this Arab emirate. “We are aware of only a small number of Irish citizens who have been arrested in the United Arab Emirates since January 2009,” says a representative of the Irish embassy based in Abu Dhabi. “We are not aware that they concern a lack of awareness of local laws or customs.” Irish ex-pat Shane McGinley echoes this viewpoint. “I think the Irish are good at keeping under the radar and not offending. Our Catholic restraint meshes well with Muslim sensibilities. It is usually boozy Brits that make the headlines.” Shane has been living in Dubai for almost two years and swiftly realised the things you can and can’t do in Arab culture. “There are always the horror stories about people being arrested for kissing in public but if you are smart you can stay under the radar. It is important also to always be aware if Muslim families are around, especially if you’ve had a few to drink. I have also noticed Arabs are getting stricter on clothing lately so it is best to cover up, especially in shopping malls.”
Unmarried men and women living together is one of the main offences committed by ex-pats living in Dubai and the neighbouring emirates. “They can’t live together unless they are married, but everyone has mixed households and flats,” says Shane. When it comes to public displays of affection, however, this is not as easy to get away with. “Shows of affection do happen and you may get a tap on your shoulder from a bouncer if you are kissing in a nightclub,” says Shane. “That said there are certain bars and clubs that only foreigners frequent so they are usually more liberal and laid back.” While the Arabs dominate how the state is run, there is a noticeable hierarchy in the UAE. “How you are directly treated depends on what nationality you are,” says Shane. “In the west we try to be all PC and pretend that doesn’t happen, in the Gulf there is no such urge to pretend. If you are European in Dubai, you will always be treated better than an Indian. Arabs are on top and men get prominence over women.”
While the UAE boasts the typical holiday attractions of sandy beaches and warm weather to draw an international crowd of tourists and ex-pats, it shows no signs of relaxing its laws or traditions, especially with regard to alcohol, clothing and public displays of affection. In particular this month the rules become even stricter as Ramadan gets underway. The month of devout praying and fasting can be a frustrating time for ex-pats and tourists. “Ramadan means you can’t eat drink or smoke in public and you can be fined or arrested,” explains Shane. “Loud music is also frowned upon, so no music in your car or load parties are allowed. Clubs are closed too and there are no concerts or entertainment events.” While it is a less popular time for holidaymakers to visit Dubai and more ex-pats tend to leave the emirates for their holidays during this period, Shane is one of the few ex-pats that embraces the holy month, for ironic reasons perhaps. “Dubai ex-pat life is very drink led so in some ways the quiet month is a new time to detox and give your system a rest.”
For information on travelling to Muslim holiday destinations or relocating there visit the Irish embassy website www.dfa.ie/home/index.aspx?id=8524 .
Posted by Karen Creed at 2:18 PM