The Dubai sex pair, aka Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer, count themselves victorious. This week (Tuesday 25th November) a Dubai appeal court heard that their three-month jail sentence for engaging in sexual acts on a beach had been suspended and that they will be deported. They will arrive home this week. Their lawyer, Hassan Mattar, praised the justness of United Arab Emirates law.
I’m sure that when they get back they will give an exclusive interview to a paper alleging that they were mishandled whilst in Dubai and that the charges should never have been brought. In fact they claim that they were just canoodling and not, in fact, having sex, although they do admit that they were both drunk at the time, also an offence in Dubai, which is a Muslim state.
I have little sympathy for them – whether or not they were getting jiggy, or in the pre-stages of getting jiggy – for two reasons. Firstly, if they had engaged in crude sexual behaviour here on a beach they would also have been charged – probably with the catch-all, “outraging public decency”, which, incidentally, can carry a jail sentence of up to two years, far longer than the sentence that a Dubai court imposed on them originally. But the second reason is far, far more serious.
As I wrote in my essay about Dubai for Prospect in April this year, the state has attempted to steer a course between respecting its Muslim nationals, and welcoming in a cosmopolitan population. The economic and political situation is fragile. 90% of the population is now expatriate and many of the nationals, intellectuals told me earlier this year, feel like “exiles in their own land”.
They no longer go to the beach, where they used to live in the summer months, because of the expatriates wandering around, half-naked, in thongs and string bikinis. Instead, many have migrated inland, away from the areas populated by the expatriates. And the malls are full of women and men in tight shorts and t-shirts, shopping till they drop, while bemused Arabs wander by, eyes averted from all the naked flesh on sight. The malls do a booming trade, I noticed when I was there, in pic’n’mix – a metaphor for Dubai life, but not always a comfortable one.
Now I’m all for liberal democracy – my birth father having been imprisoned for four years by an Islamic regime just over the water from Dubai. But I also believe in respect for other cultures and religions. And I don’t think getting pissed and copping off with someone in public, in a Muslim country, is very respectful. It’s pretty unacceptable behaviour here – and there, it’s just plain rude.
You might ask why this matters? Because we all pay the price for that kind of imperialist behaviour. The Dubai model, balancing a tolerance for Westerners with respect for Islam, is fragile. There have been a number of terrorist attacks, almost all of which have been foiled, in Dubai and in the Emirates generally. But it only takes one, and the model falls apart for good.
Behaviour that pushes at the boundaries of Muslim tolerance in Dubai will rebound on all of us. So when Mr Acors and Ms Palmer return to Britain, a little criticism, rather than a tabloid exclusive charting their woes might be more appropriate.