Everyone has heard about the case of the British woman who was celebrating her engagement with her fiancé in a Dubai hotel on New Year's Eve. The next day the woman claims she was raped by a staff member of the hotel while lying semiconscious in the toilet.
The couple reports the case to the police and, upon questioning, admit to having consumed alcohol and having sex out of wedlock. Since this is illegal in the UAE, the police charge them both with illegal drinking and adultery.
Things become further complicated once it becomes clear that the woman is Muslim because her actions contravene Sharia law. Of course, the original rape accusation is also recognised as a separate case, but this charge was proven to be false after reviewing CCTV footage.
Are the police wrong to file two separate cases? No, not technically at least. The official statement has made it clear that such admissions to breaking the law cannot be ignored. But is that really what we're talking about here? No. There is a larger issue at stake here. I have heard that unmarried couples who had vacations to Dubai planned have been reconsidering.
Are they overreacting? No. The rape factor is insignificant here. The message that comes to any tourist's mind while planning a vacation when considering Dubai is this: There are hotels that are licensed to sell me alcohol but I can be arrested for consuming it. There are hotel rooms that I can check into but I can be arrested for having sexual relations with my partner in them. Is this really the Dubai we know? Is this the city that prides itself on tolerance and harmonious coexistence?
It is one thing, though still controversial in my view, to prosecute unmarried couples who cohabit or have extra-marital relations. After all, they are residents in your city and by choosing to live here they must observe its values. But it is a completely different thing to prosecute tourists, people who are coming to your city for a short vacation, for consuming alcohol in licensed bars and restaurants and having sex privately in their hotel room.
What is the big idea here? Are we telling the world only come if you're married? Why do we expect people to come to our country and completely abandon their personal values? Yes, these are personal values.
The ability and choice to have a relationship with someone in a private space is an extremely personal value. This is completely different from the now infamous public beach sex case of 2008. This was sex that occurred in the privacy of a legally occupied hotel room.
How did this private action offend anyone? And to demonstrate the inherent contradiction, I wonder why the hotel allowed them to check into the same room in the first place. The same applies to the alcohol situation. That's akin to Switzerland's ban of the minarets because it offends the Swiss Christian population and France's proposed legislation to ban the burqa because it is un-European to cover one's face.
The issue at hand is much more than the unfortunate application of the UAE's law. The bedrock of Dubai is an unwritten social contract between the government, its locals and residents where the latter two groups are free to conduct their lives in as liberal or conservative a fashion as they please as long as it doesn't upset Dubai's delicate identity; this balancing act is the essence of Dubai's appeal.
This is why this incident and the message Dubai is sending by prosecuting this couple is more dangerous than the ill-timed and ill-managed debt standstill request by Dubai World just before the holidays.
Dubai is not unique because of its world-class infrastructure or business-friendly climate; these things can be replicated. It is unique because of its ability to accept people from around the world with different, and often contradictory values, provided they adhere to the lifestyle range that Dubai is willing to accept in the public sphere.
It was always understood that this would not be exercised in private spaces and spaces designated for specific activities. If this case is actually the beginning of a campaign to end this understanding then we will be living in a very different city very soon.
Dubai is not a melting pot, it is a tossed salad. No one changes when they come here; they simply apply Dubai's dressing which makes it work. Now if someone starts changing this salad, removing the tomatoes, citing that cucumber and lettuce are enough, then I'm not sure the salad would taste the same. I like my salad just fine, please don't reinvent it for me.
As for the police, who remind us that they cannot ignore such offences, I in turn remind them that they, and we, are better off focusing on clamping down on what seems to be an untouchable reality. Yes, I am referring to prostitution. I would like to see the police focus on this before arresting foreigners who do not even live here for simply having different values than their own. Dubai doesn't need such misguided vigilance. I have no doubt that the couple will receive a pardon because if they don't then much of what we've heard would've been rhetoric all along.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE.