Friday, October 17, 2008

Sex-on-beach case lays bare Dubai's dilemma

Oct 17, 2008

Party image to draw tourists clashes with conservative values of Muslim population

DUBAI: A British couple were sentenced to three months in jail yesterday in a case that has caused controversy in this Gulf boom town because the two were charged with having sex on the beach.

Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, in their 30s, had met at an all-you-can-drink champagne brunch in July. They were arrested and later charged with sex outside of marriage, public indecency and drunkenness.

After spending a night in jail, the two were freed but banned from leaving the country. Palmer, who has worked in Dubai's publishing industry for several years, was fired from her job.

In addition to the jail term, Judge Hamdi Mustafa Abu El-Khair yesterday levied a 1,000 dirham (S$403) fine against each of the defendants and ordered them to be deported after serving their time.

Both accused, who were not in court, had pleaded guilty to drinking alcohol without a licence but denied having sex.

When the trial opened on Aug 12, Palmer said they were simply 'kissing and hugging'. Their lawyer, Mr Hassan Matter, said he intends to appeal against the verdict.

Whether they had sex or just exchanged kisses, the case has highlighted culture clashes between the luxury tourism industry in Dubai and the conservative Muslim culture of the region.

Dubai's foreign population has mushroomed in recent years, making the local population a minority in the Gulf Arab trade and tourism hub. Balancing its Muslim identity in what remains a deeply conservative region with the lifestyle of expatriates who make up more than 90 per cent of its population has not been easy.

'These are testing times for Dubai,' said Dr Christopher Davidson, a Dubai specialist and a lecturer at Britain's Durham University. 'They cannot let badly behaved Brits off scot-free. But if they throw the book at them, what would that do to Dubai's tourism industry?'

Dubai has been described as the Las Vegas of the Middle East, with its carefully cultivated image as an oasis of liberal entertainment amid a sea of conservative Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have banned alcohol and require even foreign women to wear enveloping black robes in public. In contrast, alcohol flows freely in Dubai's hotels and women can wear bikinis on the city's beaches.

But what most visitors to Dubai do not know - and what the government is not advertising - is that beneath the city's liberal fa├»¿½ade is a legal culture based on Islamic laws and tribal rules.

While the laws are not always enforced, it is illegal for couples in Dubai to hold hands, hug or kiss in public - much less have sex on the beach.

'On affection in public, the law is clear and very strict,' said Dr Khalifa Al-Shaali, dean of the law faculty at the University of Ajman, Dubai's neighbouring emirate. 'Sex in public is an illegal act and people coming here should know this.'

'Emiratis are not anti-anybody, but the situation is pushing people to become kind of angry,' said Dr Ebtisam Al-Kitbi, a native of Dubai and a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.

Many Dubai natives feel they are not being heard by the authorities and fear the city's culture is increasingly tipping in favour of foreigners, he said.


[Even if you're a reach oil-exporting country, you cannot escape from foreign talent, foreign influence, foreign culture and foreigners who disrespect your culture and your values. The world is changing and we cannot afford to be parochial and intolerant. ]

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