DUBAI: Four years ago Indian school teacher, Shweta, 30, fell in love with co-worker Ronnie, 40, and moved into his one-bedroom flat in Dubai.
It's their love nest, but there's a small problem: Ronnie has a wife and two children back home in India. Every time his family comes over, Shweta moves out with her bags and stays with friends. Ronnie's wife is clueless about her man's "double life" even though it's an open secret in the school where they work.
For the last 15 years, Manny, a 54-year-old Filipino shipping services supervisor in Dubai, has been living with Jenny, 46, a beautician in Karama. Both have families back in the Philippines - Manny has three children from his real wife, while Jenny has two children from her real husband.
Unmarried couples living together in the UAE could face jail. But with no prying eyes to watch them over, many expatriates take delight in the anonymity which the UAE's gleaming skyscraper-studded landscape offers.
UAE sociologist Dr Rima Sabban said the "problematic" situation is one of the peculiarities of the Emirates - or any other country - where thousands of married expatriate workers are forced to live as bachelors.
"A lot of such extramarital relationships are happening underground. When you have a huge number of expatriate workers whose circumstances limit or deny them the possibility of a family reunion, you face a reality where a large number of married women and men are put together in a status of bachelors," said Dr Sabban, who has done field work on the UAE expatriate workforce for a United Nations study.
"It is the way the job marketplace is organised … If you look at the workplace statistics here, you see a huge number of low-paid workers whose status says they are married, but in reality they are as good as not, because they live alone and their families are left back home."
The numbers seem to confirm this trend: Nearly one in five men [19 per cent] in the UAE has been unfaithful to his partner while six per cent of the women owned up to infidelity, a 2010 YouGov Siraj survey showed.
Sex out of wedlock has been blamed for the alarming rise in baby-dumping cases. According to police reports, 154 newborns were abandoned in the UAE between 2004 and 2009. Six have been reported in 2011 so far (see below).
Because of expensive housing, many unrelated people are forced to share rooms or villas. In some cases such arrangements foster ‘meantime relationships'.
Last week, a man and woman - both married - were sentenced to one year in jail for having an extramarital affair while their spouses were not at home. The two families shared the same apartment in Bur Dubai.
A "double life" is often a mutually beneficial exchange, said Dr Andrea Tosato, a Dubai-based psychologist. "To be sure, it's not a very romantic situation. But for the man who has physical needs, there's always more risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases if he picks up sexual services off the streets rather than having a regular partner. For the woman, she gets to save on rent, food and the like," said Tosato.
One such ‘double life' couple are British business analyst Scot, 46, and American education executive Tracy, 55, who have been living together for the past eight months.
"It's not easy being a bachelor here. Everywhere you go, you're looked down upon for being a single guy. We work so hard here and the hours are long. At the end of the day, I hated going home to an empty house. Yes, I have a fiancée back home. She's so far away. My partner in Dubai fulfils the needs that my fiancée cannot," said Scot.
Tracy is all too aware of what she is into. "Scot hasn't hidden anything from me. I know of his woman back home. I know this may not last forever. But why not enjoy a few moments of love and togetherness for as long as we're lucky enough to have it."
But not all partners are aware of the other woman back home. Take Zimrah for instance. Living in Dubai with her Indian husband of six years, the Filipina was shocked to discover that her husband has a child with another wife in his home country. "He is pleading with me to give him another chance but I don't know what to do... We've staying together, but I'm having trouble deciding if it's right to continue our relationship.. I am confused," a shattered Zimrah wrote on an online forum seeking advice.
Filipinos have coined a phrase for unmarried partners living together: Buhay Dubai (Tagalog for "Dubai Life").
The story about a Filipino bus driver who murdered his live-in partner in Dubai last year may just be the tip of the iceberg. Investigations show that the victim, Emmy, a mother of four, had been in a violent love-hate relationship for three years with the bus driver who has a wife and child back in the Philippines.
When meantime becomes permanent, the original families back home suffer. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which regulates overseas employment, recorded more than 2,700 cases of abandonment of families by Filipino men who work abroad in the period 1999-2000 (no further data available since then).
Nhel Morona, a spokesperson of Migrante International NGO, reckons 10 per cent of Filipinos in Dubai live such double lives. "We see it with our eyes ... and some ‘kabayans' will abuse me for even saying this."
Lalaine Chu-Benitez, editor of Dubai-based Filipino lifestyle magazine Illustrado, said: "Because we belong to Asia's only Catholic country where multiple partners are unacceptable, we're somehow expected to be more conservative than others. So when you hear of such things, the contrast is so pronounced."
Grace Princesa, Philippine Ambassador to the UAE, confirmed that the embassy in Abu Dhabi has been approached for help by "a number" of wives of OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) whose husbands have cut financial support. "No success in career can make up for failure in the family," said the ambassador.
In 2004, Philippine Congress passed a little-known law called the Women and Children Act, to curb the trend. Last October, an OFW identified as Francisco Lua Jr, from La Union province, was arrested at the Manila airport after a judge issued a warrant against him following a complaint of financial abandonment and infidelity filed by his wife Lulu Cera Lua, who cited the Act. The man denied the charges. The judge had issued a hold-departure order and set 40,000-peso (Dh4,000) bail for Lua Jr's temporary freedom.
Dr. Raymond H. Hamden, author and forensic psychologist, said the acceptability of meantime partnership only becomes a moral issue when it creates conflict for the couple.
"There are some couples who realise the physical need will be taken care of in the absence of the partner, while others want to maintain complete celibacy for the sake and sanctity of their relationship," he said.
While every society views it from different social prisms, it's down to the individual. "Everything is acceptable when it does not harm the self or others … but you can't blame anyone else or the community for your choices. You, the individual, decide your standards and code of living."
Reports of abandoned babies in 2011
- January 5, 2011 An 18-year-old European teen is arrested for abandoning her child on a street in Dubai
- June 2011 Three newborn babies are abandoned, including a girl who was left on the stairs of a building in the upscale The Gardens area. Two abandoned babies are found in Sharjah
- August 2, 2011 A newborn baby girl is found abandoned at the swimming pool changing room at the Danat Al Ain Hotel and Resort in Al Ain
- September 9, 2011 A baby boy is dumped at the doorstep of an Emirati man in Ras Al Khaimah. The fair-skinned baby was said to be healthy and was handed over to Saqr Hospital
- October 30, 2011 Police in RAK find the body of a newborn baby wrapped in a plastic bag in a garbage bin of a residential building. The dead newborn was thrown in the garbage bin through a garbage chute of the building, said police
- With inputs from Muby Asger and Mazhar Farooqui
Note: Names have been changed to protect identities.