Sex-on-beach trial exposes Dubai’s cultural divide

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ The British pair on trial for sex on the beach deny going all the way, but even a snuggle in the sand is too much in this Persian Gulf city. Although Dubai sells itself as a party hot spot, its Arab population hews to conservative Muslim values. The clash of cultures between residents and the foreigners who flock here to work and play is coming to a head in the trial of Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, Britons accused of having intercourse in public after meeting hours earlier at an all-you-can-drink champagne brunch. The pair, both in their 30s, face up to two years in prison if convicted of engaging in sex outside marriage, public indecency and drunkenness. A judge is expected to issue a verdict in the case Thursday âÄî a decision that risks alienating tourists or upsetting Emiratis angry at the government’s willingness to relax moral standards in the name of economic growth. “These are testing times for Dubai, a sunshine state where everything always goes right,” said Christopher Davidson, a Dubai specialist at Britain’s Durham University. “They cannot let badly behaved Brits off scot-free,” he said. “But if they throw the book at them, what would that do to Dubai’s tourism industry?” Dubai has been called the Las Vegas of the Middle East, with its carefully cultivated image as an oasis of liberal entertainment set amid an expanse of conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. The Saudis ban 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 city beaches. But what most foreigners don’t know âÄî and what the government is not advertising âÄî is that beneath the liberal facade is a legal culture based on Islamic laws and tribal rules that looks a lot more like Riyadh than Las Vegas. While the laws are not always enforced, it is illegal for couples in Dubai to hold hands, hug or kiss in public âÄî much less have sex on the beach. “On affection in public, the law is clear and very strict,” said Khalifa al-Shaali, dean of the law faculty at the University of Ajman, in Dubai’s neighboring emirate. “Sex in public is an illegal act.” Palmer and Acors were arrested in July after an unidentified resident reported them to the police for indecent behavior. After a night in jail, they were freed but banned from leaving the country until a court determined their fate. Both admitted they were drunk but denied having sex. “They are innocent, and there’s evidence to prove it,” their lawyer, Hassan Matter, told The Associated Press. “If they wanted to have sex, they could have gone to a hotel or her apartment, not the beach.” Palmer, who has worked in Dubai’s publishing industry for several years, was fired from her job after her arrest. She has received more media attention than Acors, who on vacation when he met her. Dubai’s indigenous population has long demanded that the government act to preserve their religious values and small-town traditions. Emiratis account for only 15 percent to 20 percent of a population dominated by Asian migrant workers, Western ex-pats and tourists. “They (Emiratis) are not anti anybody, but the situation is pushing people to become kind of angry,” said Ebtisam al-Kitbi, a Dubai native who teaches political science at Emirates University in Al Ain. Many natives fear the city’s culture is increasingly tipping in favor of foreigners, al-Kitbi said. Some Emiratis have turned to radio call-in programs and Internet blogs to vent about how they no longer feel at home in their own country. In response, the government has stepped up its efforts. A few days after Palmer and Acors were arrested, police detained dozens of people, mostly tourists, for topless sunbathing, nudity and other acts deemed indecent. It also has tightened immigration rules, visa policies and work permits. But Dubai’s leaders also say they are going ahead with plans for growth âÄî plans that will keep the city on the cultural front line. “They talk about a clash of civilizations. You can find it here,” said al-Kitbi.