There is this creeping perception that Dubai, the traditionally most glamorous Gulf city, is growing socially more conservative and less attractive to visitors and tourists alike. The new conventional wisdom has it that Abu Dhabi is putting pressure on the once socially lax Dubai to become more conservative as it helps bail it out.
The truth of the matter, however is that the city is becoming no more and no less conservative and Abu Dhabi is not having any significant impact on Dubai in any direction, let alone promoting social conservatism. Dubai will never give up its invaluable liberal spirit, no matter how generous the financial aid is. Historically, the city has served as a trendsetter not just for the neighbouring Abu Dhabi but for the region at large. It is difficult to imagine now a reversal of this social impact. When it comes to liberal lifestyle, it is still largely Dubai's call.
In addition, the recent spectacular opening of the glamorous Meydan horse racing city, featuring none other than Elton John, and the arrival next month of Rod Stewart and company are reminders that Dubai has not lost its position as the regional entertainment centre.
Admittedly, the city is going through a crucial period of financial and administrative adjustments. And due to its huge debt obligations amounting to well over $100 billion (Dh367 billion), Dubai is bound to be fiscally more responsible. But fiscal responsibility does not automatically translate into social conservatism. The city is packed with entertainment activities and has received more than six million visitors during the difficult year of 2009. Hence the wild talk about Dubai's "march towards conservatism" does not square with realities.
In addition, enforcing existing codes of conduct that are meant to curtail vulgar behaviour does not amount to any major shift in policy. All cities and societies cherish their values and customs and have binding rules and regulations. These are essential to keep the peace, maintain order and stability and preserve the identity of the people and the place. These codes of conduct are binding and need to be observed across the board. It is only natural that those who violate the laws of the land and show signs of gross disrespect for the prevailing values are held accountable and ought to be punished by the authorities.
It is also legitimate that these codes of conduct are continuously renewed and replaced, in keeping with new societal needs and developments. Constant upgrading of laws is a universally accepted practice in all cities and societies. This is especially true in the case of a fast-modernising, fast-changing country like the UAE and a fast-globalising city like Dubai.
Hence it is rather perplexing that some would read too much into Dubai's latest moves to stop the ostentatious display of indecency that disrespects local values and culture. These vulgarities that stretch the tolerance level should not be tolerated by decent members of any civilised society.
At stake are the very tender feelings of the local citizens, who are becoming a disappearing minority of no more than 20 per cent in their own country. The concern for their centuries-old values and customs is genuine. Some of the bad behaviour in public places has been offensive and outrageously disrespectful of local values. Citizens, as well as the concerned members of the large expat community, are right to exercise their ethical duty by reporting these cases.
They are acting legally and responsibly and have at heart the best interest of the city. They care about its unique social harmony that might be in peril if violations of codes of conduct continue unabated. The city's authority has no choice but to attend to these legitimate concerns and take swift legal action.
Some probably think that the city is indeed becoming more conservative. This should not bother the overwhelming majority of the city's decent population. Others might not like firm legal verdicts to rein in disrespectful behaviour. These few individuals bring negative energy that the city is better off without. Still others are thinking of their profitable businesses and are cunningly applying pressure on the city through foreign media. But at the end of the day, social harmony and tranquillity are much more important than the likelihood of a decline in peripheral, shadowy businesses.
The top government priority at the moment is to cater to the feelings of its citizens. Their social concerns have been neglected for too long. Time is also right for the city to send a message to all to act demurely and be more respectful of local values.
The few cases of diligent reporting of bad behaviour and the appropriate legal action taken should not be exaggerated. They do not add up to any major shift of social policy and do not make Dubai any more conservative. Dubai has always been liberal and welcoming. Nothing is going to change this policy of tolerance and moderation, which has made the UAE the safest place in an otherwise difficult and violent region that is full of extremism, fundamentalism and ultra-conservatism.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdullah is a professor of political science at UAE University.