Dubai: It’s been frequently referred to as a melting pot of cultures and its image as the embodiment of a global society much applauded in platforms ranging from expat chat forums to hotel and airline advertisements, freehold property brochures, tourism campaigns and government relocation advisories.
But with an increase in the number of cases involving public indecency – ranging from residents caught having sex in a taxi or in their cars to being jailed for public kissing or flashing fingers at policemen – and with a social media campaign on decent dress code going viral nationwide in a matter of weeks with a groundswell of support and opposition alike, Emiratis and expats in the UAE have begun to examine the possibility of a cultural disconnect that lies beneath the semblance of a melting pot.
“I would say there is zero cultural assimilation in the UAE,” says Jalal Bin Thaneya, an Emirati activist for the physically challenged and an intrepid walker. “Different nationalities here do co-exist and it’s actually a melting pot when it comes to business and financial transactions in the country. But not in terms of cultural and social aspects. Dubai has attracted hundreds of nationalities due to its security and safety, liberties not found in other Arab countries, its prosperity and the promise of a better future. Several thousand such residents and investors who call the UAE their home are from different cultures – and that has made the UAE a beautiful place. But there has been also a side-effect to this phenomenon: it has marginalised Emiratis and there hasn’t been enough of assimilation of Emirati culture,” says Bin Thaneya.
In a society which puts a premium on public modesty and decorum but where the local population comprises only 11 per cent of a total of 8.2 million, the most recent evidence of the lack of such assimilation comes in the form of the Twitter campaign, which began with a hashtag – #UAEDressCode – and has evolved to an account with more than 600 followers.
“For a long time, we were discussing what was happening at shopping malls: every time we walked in we saw so many people wearing indecent dress,” says Asma Al Muhairi, an Abu Dhabi-based Emirati working in the marketing field, who started the campaign.
“Many people complained about such dresses which left little to imagination, but nobody took any action. We spoke to the mall managements, who said they can’t do anything if shoppers don’t follow guidelines put up all over the malls to dress decently. So with my friend Hanan [Al Rayes] we decided to set up this hashtag, with a simple message: please respect Emirati culture and customs and follow the rules. We are just asking for dressing decently, not for everyone to wear an abaya or a hijab,” says Asma.
It’s a sentiment strongly echoed by Bin Thaneya.
“When people are walking around in shopping malls scantily clad or in see-through dress and you can see their private parts – I think that’s really insulting to me and to everyone else around. There’s nothing wrong with being modest, and liberty isn’t about a woman or a man sexually promoting themsleves – we have many blessings in the UAE and we don’t deserve such indecency,” says Bin Thaneya, a vocal supporter of the campaign on social media.
According to him, many expats are unaware of what they need to wear and how they need to behave in the UAE due to the transient nature of the population.
“I’ve seen many women wear bikinis and come to a mall: they need to realize that a mall is not a beach. But most Emiratis don’t want to confront that reality and think that it’s the security guard’s job to raise awareness. And the mall management wouldn’t want to lose customers. So the UAE dress code campaign is trying to fill that void and prompt the enforcement of our cultural values,” Bin Thaneya says. The defiance of the country’s cultural values is an issue bothering not just Emiratis but everyone else - from Americans to Indians to Filipinos: “The #UAEDressCode has brought people from all spectrum of the society together and it’s very encouraging to see that,” he adds.
On Twitterverse, debate rages.
A supporter of the campaign who identified herself as Crystal C tweeted: “As a ‘Westerner’ from Canada, I completely agree with @UAEDressCode as one MUST respect the cultural customs of the country they are in!” But Shahriar Shahabi asked: “How many of you think that the state has the right to tell citizens what to wear and how to dress?” An Emirati tweep, Nabil Al Messabi, advocated caution - “Fellows, this isn’t a war of “Us” against “Them”. Let’s not generalise on foreigners. Appreciate the cultural mix in the UAE” - while compatriot Fatema Al Ansari offered a practical tip: “It’s our role at workplace to educate our – foreigner – colleagues about our culture and what is accepted and what’s not.” Another resident complained she was no longer comfortable shopping at a mall in Dubai as “some people have mistaken it for a beach/tanning parlor!”
Dr Patrick Chin from Singapore tweeted the experience of a Facebook campaign in his own multi-racial country to spread cultural awareness: “Some visitors complained about our culture of having curry, which is a popular local food [with] strong smell during preparation. So, the foreign visitors complained to the authorities. Some Singaporeans felt the need to educate our visitors [and] started a little campaign called the Curry Day, where a few families prepared curry at home and invite our visitors... It was phenomenal, we had close to 60,000 families cooking curry together on a Sunday morning”.
Pinpointing one particular reason behind the emergence of such a debate isn’t easy. Analysts say part of the cultural divide arises out of the primary motive for expats to move to the UAE: “The focus is mostly on business and better quality of life rather than knowing the country better,” says Asma. Combine that with the ease of living in the UAE without knowing a single word of Arabic, the fact that on average an expat will move out of the country in a matter of years, and that each community tends to form their own cultural coterie – which sometimes extends to neighbourhoods – and remain confined to it, and you get a glimpse of the complexity of the situation.
For Emirati writer Eman Mohamed, demography plays a crucial role in the debate. “It’s a unique situation because the people of the land here are a minority and the foreign population is growing at a rapid pace. From a psychological perspective, faced against an onslaught of cultural values contrary to those of the UAE, Emiratis fear that their own identity may be lost. Lately I have seen young newcomers to the country who are completely ignorant of our culture – this is something you usually wouldn’t see 10 years back. So campaigns such as the dress code are attempts to preserve their culture and dignity and reinforce existing guidelines on acceptable social manners and customs based on mutual trust and respect,” she says.
A key part of the debate has been the definition of decency and what comprises a dress code: in a country with more than 100 nationalities, a piece of dress or a gesture that’s fair game in an expat’s home country might not be acceptable at all in the UAE. Those involved in the dress code campaign urge using common sense and trying to respect or share the same values as their host country. “Decency is something that comes from within… When I value my body, I will respect my body and not show it around,” says Asma. “It’s also about being respectful of other cultures. I am travelling to Japan soon on business and I have been told that I can wear my veil but can’t wear the abaya. I’ve accepted that and I am now shopping around for business attire suitable for the Japanese meeting.” Bin Thaneya is more categorical. “Most people don’t understand the culture: in Islam we don’t go out wearing underwear. If they want the country to become a nightclub, it’s not going to happen. We’re not asking everyone to wear an abaya or a thawb: just cover up.”
But apart from campaigns on social media, are there more specific solutions to bridging the cultural chasm?
Some communities have already moved to orient potential travelers and emigrants about the law of the land in UAE.
The British government’s travel advisory for its citizens travelling to the UAE, for instance, now includes caveats on dress code: “Clothes should cover the tops of the arms and legs, and underwear should not be visible. Swimming attire should be worn only on beaches or at swimming pools, and not in other public areas.”
Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah each also have their own dedicated agencies which continue to promote both tourism and the cultural norms of the land. Barbara Saunders, Senior Communication Adviser at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), says: “As regards dress codes and the cultural norms of the destination, the authority offers advice to its visitors on these topics in all of its visitor collateral and on its destination website. The authority is also the body which oversees the training and licensing of tour guides operating in Abu Dhabi emirate and cultural awareness is a strong element in this training, which the guides are encouraged to pass on to their clients.”
According to the proponents of UAE dress code, many more authorities and institutions should be involved in the cultural initiation of new residents and stricter enforcement of public decency guidelines, including immigration, airports, airlines and mall managements. “More Emiratis should also come forward in helping spread this awareness. Many have now opened up and agree with the campaign – we need them as part of our efforts to promote our own culture,” says Asma.