The degenerates of Dubai: How the widespread behaviour of our expats is causing a backlash
By David Jones
Last updated at 12:27 AM on 19th July 2008
Despite the presence of undercover ‘love police’ now patrolling its scalding white sands, and the promise of new signs warning foreigners of dire consequences should their passions get the better of them, little has changed on the Dubai beach where two drunken Britons staged their now notorious ‘sex romp’.
Last Wednesday, at one end of the vast, crescent-shaped expanse, a contingent of preening expat women in designer bikinis fried themselves for as long as they could withstand the 50 degree heat before plunging into the blue waters to cool their bronzed bodies.
Further along the shoreline, meanwhile, their hapless Emirati counterparts were forced to wade into the waves wearing their amorphous black abayas, which weighed them down so heavily when drenched that they could barely paddle out again.
Culture clash: East meets West as a veiled Emirati woman stares at a scantily-clad foreigner
Set against a backdrop of dizzying new skyscrapers and a forest of giant cranes (50 per cent of the world’s entire stock of the largest cranes is concentrated here), this tableau neatly epitomises the seismic clash of cultures and morals which has lately beset this desert-built Disneyland of a state.
This collision between traditional Islamic values and those of the decadent West may have been brought sharply into focus by the tawdry sex-on-the-beach saga – which is expected to reach its denouement next week with the prosecution of expat publishing executive Michelle Palmer and her fleeting partner, businessman Vince Acors.
To understand fully its complexities, and potential gravity, however, one must leave Dubai, with its glitzy shopping malls and nightclubs, and drive north for 50 minutes along the new Emirates Highway.
Here, sandwiched between the dramatic Hajja Mountains and the Arabian Gulf, one enters the most beautiful but little-known emirate of Ras al-Kaimah. Though it is still the same country, here there are no boozy Brits or flashy hotels. And to its 295,000 souls – naturally hospitable but fiercely religious and traditional in their ways – neighbouring Dubai is the new Babylon.
It is no coincidence that the 9/11 hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi, who piloted the plane that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, hails from these parts.
Indeed, some locals regard his family’s white stone villa, which stands near the mosque in a dusty hamlet where goats roam the streets, as a shrine.
By now, the enormity of the drunken beach romp – which is merely symptomatic of the routinely appalling behaviour of the new breed of British expats in Dubai – should be plainly apparent.
But if not, then it is spelt out by Dr Christopher Davidson, a Durham University lecturer who has spent much time in the United Arab Emirates and has just published an acclaimed book examining the possible consequences of Dubai’s emergence as the world’s fastest-growing commercial and tourism centre.
He is convinced that Dubai, with its unique position as a cosmopolitan and capitalist society at the heart of the Middle East, is high on the list of targets for Islamic fundamentalists – an assertion which gained credence recently when the Foreign Office elevated the emirate to the highest state of terror alert.
And Dr Davidson fears that the revulsion of seeing members of the 120,000-strong British community trampling over the sensitivities of their Islamic hosts could stoke the fire of hatred, turning some disaffected young Emirati into the next al-Shehhi.
‘It’s not making a quantum leap to connect the rising threat of a terrorist attack with badly-behaved Britons,’ he told me. ‘The Dubai government has gone for mass tourism and huge foreign investment, and they’ve been very successful so far, but the cost could be enormous.
Dubai is growing quickly but the wealth is making Brits crave excess
‘There is still no outlet for the frustrations of disaffected locals, many of whom are appalled by loose Western standards, in particular among women.
‘I have sat in coffee shops with UAE nationals and they’ve looked me in the eye and told me: “I want my country to be an Islamic emirate.” There is a lot of resentment. It is not stretching credibility to imagine that, for some, the only way to vent that frustration could be by committing an act of violence.’
For Dubai, of course, such an act would be disastrous. It would, as Dr Davidson points out, instantly burst the bubble of confidence on which the ruling Maktoum family have built their incredible dreamland in the dunes.
International investment would dry up; the million British tourists who flock here to shop and sun themselves each year would melt away; the Premiership footballers and pop stars who have bought exclusive villas on the new Palm Islands development, such as Michael Owen and Rod Stewart, would doubtless move to safer shores.
Moreover, since Dubai is the Middle East’s cosmopolitan melting pot, and its experiment with Islamic capitalism could become the blueprint for surrounding Arab states, its failure would have dire consequences for the entire region.
On the surface, the sordid encounter between Palmer and Acors may be the stuff of saucy seaside postcards, but to the many Dubaian nationals I have spoken to this week it is no laughing matter.
As I was reminded repeatedly, they are already a minority group in their own country, where more than 85 per cent of the estimated 1.8 million residents are from overseas.
And this latest incident is but another reminder of the manner in which, they claim, their mores are being eroded by the vast foreign influx.
After spending a week here, it is easy to understand why they feel so strongly, for it is not only on Dubai’s beaches that one finds the locals on the wrong side of an invisible line in the sand.
Take, for example, trendy bars such as Sho Cho, on the exclusive marina development, where Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors downed cocktails before their starlit fumble.
The beach friskiness of Michelle Palmer Vince Acors has brought the problem out into the open
Here, as in many fashionable restaurants, only Western clothing is permitted, and any man wearing an Arab costume is summarily turned away.
This discrimination extends to the workplace. Young Emiratis may be first in line for civil service positions, but the plethora of perk-laden, tax-free jobs in the new foreign businesses in places such as Media City and Internet City routinely go to candidates from London, Birmingham or Manchester.
Generations ago, when an altogether different kind of Briton ventured to the Middle East to help unite the Arabs and build their country, such privileged positions were hard-earned.
As one expat, Lucy Roberts, explained scathingly, however, the sad truth is that many of the new British émigrés have only decamped here after failing to forge careers back home.
‘Frankly, there are a lot of idiots here who are working in jobs they shouldn’t be doing,’ said Lucy, 32, who quit her job as a London estate agent and runs a graphic design company.
‘I think the term is “punching above their weight”. They brag a lot and don’t deliver. One girl I know works in PR and thinks she’s Anna Wintour (editor of America Vogue), when she’s really nothing to write home about.
‘People who would never get on at a big company in London can come here and be the boss in two years.’
These annoyingly brash Britons, who zip about in Porsche Boxters and Mitsubishi Pajeros with sunglasses perched on their streaked hairlines, and whose idea of fun is to get legless at Dubai’s famously debauched champagne-and-lobster Friday brunch sessions, are bagging all the best apartments and villas, too.
With property prices going up at a mesmerising rate (no sign of the credit crunch here), it means that Emiratis are being priced out of the most exclusive areas and shunted into what one local government clerk described as ‘up-market ghettoes’ on the fringes of the city.
Worse, as Dubai is a hereditary monarchy without any parliament, the ordinary people have no voice, so no one can question who is really benefiting from this modern form of colonisation.
However, the UAE government is sufficiently concerned at the creeping loss of Arab customs and traditions to have staged a two- day ‘national identity conference’ recently. And there, one or two senior government figures were brave enough to express dissent.
Given the fascination for American TV shows and movies, and the need to master English to secure a good job, a former education minister foresaw the time when no one could speak proper Arabic.
The refreshingly outspoken UAE police chief General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim went further, saying in a speech that the nation was flooded with so many foreigners that it was ‘at a crossroads’ and in danger of getting out of control.
‘I’m afraid we’re building towers but losing the Emirates,’ he said, to frowns from the bearded royals on the podium. For once, someone was telling them what their subjects really think.
One Oxbridge-educated Dubaian woman in her late 20s, who asked not be named for fear of damaging her career prospects, told me plaintively how she returned from her studies in England to find a country in which she no longer feels at home.
Backdrop to beach loving: The Burj Al Arab hotel, where some 79 people have been arrested for ‘behaving indecently’ in recent days
‘Taxis don’t stop for us, people won’t rent us apartments, and we’re routinely ridiculed and insulted,’ she said. ‘And how do you think it feels to hear about a British woman having casual sex on the beach when we still can’t even discuss sex with close friends? It’s the big unspoken elephant in the room.
‘Our parents are in a collective state of denial. The pace of change in Dubai is so bewildering that they simply don’t know how to react. I think my father’s generation all need therapy.
‘While the expats flaunt themselves in short skirts and low-cut tops and get drunk, we are still at the stage where female students need a pass-card to leave the university campus.
‘I don’t want to see this woman [Michelle Palmer] severely punished, but she needs to understand that she has done irreparable harm to our chances of improving women’s rights here. Incidents like this just make our parents even more paranoid about what might happen to us if British behaviour becomes the norm, and so they are more controlling.’
Like others, she would like prospective incomers to be rigorously vetted to root out the vacuous new breed of British yobs and spivs who are being lured to Dubai in the expectation of acquiring an easy playboy lifestyle.
For despite its reputation for severe border and customs controls (a British woman was recently jailed for possessing a codeine-based painkiller, and a BBC DJ for possessing a minute trace of cannabis), the fact is that almost anyone can come to stay here.
The effect of this open-door policy, which the government deems vital to keep the economic wheels turning, is to make Dubai seem wilder and more debauched than even the Spanish costas after the British invasion of the Seventies.
Nowhere is more sickeningly emblematic of the country’s seedy new underbelly than the bar at the downtown York International Hotel – a squalid cauldron that should shame any civilised society, let alone one so devoutly Islamic. As the overhead TVs show bloody, noholds barred fighting contests, and music throbs deafeningly, a veritable United Nations of prostitutes – Chinese, Ethiopian, Russian, Nigerian – barter their services.
Inevitably, their regular punters are often British.
So why do Dubai’s rulers turn a blind eye to a vice industry now as endemic as that of Amsterdam or Las Vegas? The answer came from an anonymous expat executive.
‘To them it’s one more service industry, pure and simple,’ he said. ‘If they are to entice businessmen and tourists here, they know they must cater for their every need. The only real taboos are gambling and drugs.’
For the government, he added, problems arise only when these ‘needs’ become so visible that they begin to offend and corrupt the locals – which is what is happening with increasing frequency.
They will then make a brief but very public show of propriety by ordering a crackdown on ‘ immorality’, as has happened in recent days following the beach sex episode.
These events are dutifully reported by the state-controlled media. Last week, police announced that no fewer than 79 people had been behaving ‘ inappropriately’ on the beach; all westerners, naturally.
Bizarrely, they also claim to have arrested 41 foreign men for ‘ crossdressing’ – proof that Dubai is fast becoming as exotic a sexual playground as Bangkok.
To rub salt in the wounds, most of the cavorting is played out on Fridays – a holy day in the Islamic world but a day of frenetic partying for the expats, which begins with the notorious Friday brunch and often continues until the sirens are wailing the first call to prayer at 5am the next day
Many native Dubaians are demanding that the gorging, riotous (and occasionally orgiastic) brunch ritual be banned.
They also believe westerners should be required to observe the rules of Ramadan, when locals are forbidden to eat and drink in public.
Bearing in mind the views of many British people who are concerned about the lack of integration of some ethnic groups in this country, the feelings of the Dubaians hardly seem unreasonable. At least, in Britain, many immigrants have the desire to learn about our traditions and values, and master the language.
But try asking an expat in Dubai whether they have ever toured the magnificent Jumeirah Mosque (open to non-Muslims on certain days of the week) or been for dinner with an Arab work colleague and his family.
When I posed that question to British residents here this week, most gave me a look which suggested that they thought the sun had gone to my head.
One young Briton who works for the Dubaian royal family put it bluntly: ‘There is no integration here at all. It may sound insulting, but nobody is the slightest bit interested in making friends with the Arabs. It’s just not done.’
What the British are interested in is having a good time – and almost everyone you meet has an anecdote about their shameful excesses.
One Indian taxi driver told me he often picks up British men and women so drunk and abusive that he simply decants them at the police station, where they are detained until they sober up and then escorted home. (So much for ‘police heavy-handedness’.)
At Barasti, a fashionable bar on the new marina, a Filipino waiter spoke of another regular spectacle: that of drunkards falling into the swimming pool besides the decking. ‘They are usually British,’ he said. ‘Sorry, but it’s true.’
Overlooking this bar, incidentally, is the skyscraper from which Ryan Guest, a 26-year-old oil engineer, plunged to his death this week – reportedly after an alcohol-fuelled row with his girlfriend.
It is not only the cocktail-swilling younger crowd who are disgracing themselves. In the massive new Mall of the Emirates, a supermarket checkout girl grumbled about the habitual rudeness of the so-called ‘Jumeirah Janes’ – the expat British trophy wives who take their name from the affluent district where they usually live.
Among the dozens of nationalities who shop there, she said, these women of leisure, whose days revolve around nail parlours, beauty salons and luncheon engagements, were invariably the most obnoxious customers.
‘Why are your people so badmannered?’
Why indeed? Such complaints may seem trifling. Remembering Dr Davidson’s doom-laden prognosis, however, they are far more serious.
‘Because Dubai has become this successful international brand, and Premiership footballers go there, it has become so much more accessible, and people tend to forget exactly where they are when they go there on holiday, or to find work,’ he says.
‘But they would do well to remember that, to get there, they have had to fly over Iraq and Saudi Arabia. That alone ought to be a very sobering thought.’
So it ought. And this week, when the chastened Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors face an Arab court, they will no doubt be reminded, in the starkest terms, exactly where their act of drunken folly was committed.
In ordinary circumstances, one might argue that their abject public humiliation is punishment enough. But given that the stakes are so high, perhaps it is time for an exemplary sentence to shock the hedonistic British expats back to their senses.
If not, how long before another disaffected Emirati’s home becomes a terrorist’s shrine?