Building an image

palm islandDubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, has long been known as an influential port city. But it’s a huge tourist destination as well. The city is constantly building, allegedly claiming 15-25 percent of the world’s cranes. It has the tallest man-made structure, the only 7-star hotel, massive man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree. Half the time I see pictures of Dubai, I’m unsure if what I’m seeing is real or computer generated.

Reuters had an interesting report this week about how the huge tourist industry is creating a culture clash with the city’s permanent population. Here’s how it begins:

Sex on the beach or drunken trysts may not raise eyebrows in many cities, but a recent case in Dubai has exposed a growing cultural divide between native Muslims and Western residents seeking fun in the sun.

The story of a British pair facing possible jail terms on charges of having drunken sex on the beach made headlines around the world, but in Dubai, reports are frequent of hapless foreigners falling foul of local laws that strictly control drinking and ban homosexuality or kissing in public.

Um, correct me if I’m wrong, but public sex on beaches actually raises eyebrows most anywhere, right? I have been on many beaches in my day and I’m pretty sure public sex was a major no-no on them all. As in, you would get arrested if caught. Have laws in the West changed without me knowing?

Certainly a discussion of traditional Muslim life versus wild, crazy, drunken tourist life is in order. But I think the reporters may have oversold us on the lede.

Still, the article is really interesting. Expatriates comprise 90 percent of the population in Dubai and nationals say that their identity is under threat. Dubai has worked hard to build its image as a cosmopolitan and modern city. Nationals receive free housing, education and healthcare and rulers redistribute oil wealth in return for political loyalty, according to the article.

The story paints a very black and white picture. Westerners are crazed and the Muslim population is law-abiding. It may be convenient to set the story up that way, but it’s not very nuanced. To that end, readers may also want to check out Michael Slackman’s piece in the New York Times about the religious climate for young Muslims in Dubai:

In his old life in Cairo, Rami Galal knew his place and his fate: to become a maintenance man in a hotel, just like his father. But here, in glittering, manic Dubai, he is confronting the unsettling freedom to make his own choices.

Here Mr. Galal, 24, drinks beer almost every night and considers a young Russian prostitute his girlfriend. But he also makes it to work every morning, not something he could say when he lived back in Egypt. Everything is up to him, everything: what meals he eats, whether he goes to the mosque or a bar, who his friends are.

Dubai marina view9 big
The story uses Galal and other men working in Dubai to show the differences between the vibrant city and their home cultures. Here’s the crux of the story:

Dubai is, in some ways, a vision of what the rest of the Arab world could become — if it offered comparable economic opportunity, insistence on following the law and tolerance for cultural diversity. In this environment, religion is not something young men turn to because it fills a void or because they are bowing to a collective demand. That, in turn, creates an atmosphere that is open not only to those inclined to a less observant way of life, but also to those who are more religious. In Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Algeria, a man with a long beard is often treated as an Islamist — and sometimes denied work. Not here in Dubai.

“Here, I can practice my religion in a natural and free way because it is a Muslim country and I can also achieve my ambition at work,” said Ahmed Kassab, 30, an electrical engineer from Zagazig Egypt, who wears a long dark beard and has a prayer mark on his forehead. “People here judge the person based on productivity more than what he looks like. It’s different in Egypt, of course.”

I’m not sure if the implication is that young men only turn to religion in other places because “it fills a void” or because they are “bowing to a collective demand.” I get the point, but such declarative statements should be better sourced.

Still, Slackman’s piece is fascinating. I particularly like the way he compares the experiences of Muslim expatriates who have lived in the West and in Dubai. In both places they have freedom, but the difference is the surrounding culture. Well worth a read.

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  • Jerry

    Slackman’s piece is fascinating but there is one gigantic ghost: what about women’s lives in Dubai? Outside of prostitutes there is no mention of what opportunities there are for women and how women’s rights are viewed. The lack of mention of women in the story is enough for me to seriously downgrade my opinion of the job he did.


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