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Sex on the Beach in Dubai: Voyeurism of Orientalism

By July 12, 2008

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"You name it, Dubai has it," is how Danielle Pergament recently described for the Times one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. "Or if it doesn’t have it, it’s building it. Or if it’s not building it, it’s dredging up an island to put it on. The busiest of the seven United Arab Emirates is growing so fast that its newest developments can only be measured in hummingbird flaps. Blink and you’ll miss the latest superlative. This way to the world’s tallest building. That way to the world’s largest aluminum plant. Coming soon, the world’s longest bridge. Over here to the world’s biggest mall — which, incidentally, is about to be usurped any day now by a bigger one."

The emirate's adventures in modernization have made it a destination of choice for westerners eager for action and the financial rewards so inherent to a place more flush in cash than a few Bill Gates endowments strung together. But there are limits to the emirate's indulgence. Randy Michelle Palmer found out.

Johnson is 30 years old. She's British. She worked for ITP Publishing, which produces some 60 business magazines in the Middle East. (She was fired as a result of the tale here unfolding.) The company's Web site, to highlight its lifestyle publishing group, features the picture of a rumbling nighttime disco scene. Palmer lived up to the image. She was partying. She hooked up with another Brit. The two started having sex on a Dubai beach. A cop saw them. He asked them to refrain from publicly displaying their erogenous urges and moved on. They, according to the Sun, changed venue and resumed investing into each other's sovereign funds. Still publicly. The same cop saw them again, and this time arrested them.

Palmer allegedly unleashed a stream of obscenities at the cop, some of those obscenities laced in Islamophobic venom, and tried to hit him with her high heels. She faces from three months to six years in jail on charges of sexually cavorting outside of marriage and assaulting an officer. It's not clear which carries the heavier sentence, although the man faces the same charges.

What's clearer is that this has turned into yet another cause célèbre for all the wrong reasons. The British press (and not just the British press) has seized on the story as another example of Arab puritanism's excess. But this is not anything like the case of the French boy raped in Dubai then threatened with prison for engaging in homosexual activities. Australian expat blogger Seabee, who's lived in Dubai since 2005 (and for a seven-year stretch in the late 70s and early 80s) sees it differently, and I think reasonably so:

What's irritating me is that, here as well as overseas, people keep talking about it in relation to the 'Muslim conservative society'. They're saying it's not the way to behave here. Look, it's not the way to behave anywhere. [...] I can't think of any country in the world where they wouldn't have been arrested. It's not to do with Muslim sensibilities. In liberal, secular, Christian Australia being drunk and disorderly, having public sex and assaulting a police officer would also see you arrested. The sentence may well be more severe here than in the liberal West, that's all.
In Daytona Beach last fall the local police department, which occasionally behaves like Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, arrested nine people for masturbating--not in public, but in a public bathroom, at a mall, behind closed doors.. So our Seabee correspondent makes a good point. This is not a Dubai thing. (The excessive sentence, however, is another story.)

The West's tabloid reporting on the story is, it seems to me, more of an issue for revealing once again that Orientalist urge to see so many matters of sex and morals in the Middle East through oddly voyeuristic and paradoxically prurient and judgmental eyes. The judgments aren't local. Local laws are what they are, and in this case, as the cop's initial reaction proves, the laws are obviously more relaxed than they used to be: the cop was willing to let the romp slide if the couple showed a bit more modesty. The judgments are those imposed by western perceptions of Dubai as a retrograde place, as if to imply that the couple should have been left alone, or at least let go with nothing more than a civil fine. But what of the attempt to assault an officer--what's known, in the United States, as resisting arrest with violence, a second-degree felony that does carry a rather hefty prison sentence?

It's safe to say that people are caught having sex on beaches all over the globe. Only when the stories are datelined from somewhere in the Middle East do they elicit disproportionate interest. Why? It's the same old impulse that sent Flaubert and other western travelers through the Middle East projecting all sorts of wild and sexually charged impressions on the place--projecting, that is, their own prejudices on locals they had no compunction using for their own gratification. This latest case is a variation on the old story, with a twist. But Dubai is no culprit.

November Update:


July 17, 2008 at 4:57 am
(1) Cue says:

Well, in point of fact the maximum sentence for assault with a weapon in Canada is 10 years, and without 5 years. Whether or not Canadian police officers would lay a weapons charge against a narly naked high heal wielding woman is another issue, but such things are not unheard of.

February 1, 2009 at 1:29 pm
(2) kookimebux says:

Hello. And Bye. :)

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