Image Credit: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

With so many cultures living together in the UAE, a certain amount of strife should be expected. This past week saw two issues in which this “clash of cultures” came to the forefront — the dress modestly Twitter campaign and the outrage expressed by some nationals over the Madonna concert in Abu Dhabi.

With the first issue, a group of Emiratis banded together to raise awareness about the skimpy attire some foreigners choose to wear in public spaces. The Twitter hashtag campaign #UAEdresscode provided a space for Emiratis — and many expats — to object to the immodest dress of these visitors.

Few people can argue with the validity of their arguments. Expats live in a conservative country and should abide and respect the host country’s culture. “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” the old saying goes.

Affording this respect makes sense — particularly in the public spaces shared by nationals and expats.

The problem with the current approach is two-fold. First we must do more to spread awareness to oblivious expats about proper clothing etiquette. But the signs in the malls and other areas are often quite clear enough — what’s missing is enforcement.

Indeed, any effective public relations campaign to change behaviour involves both awareness and some type of enforcement. Governments aiming to increase the use of seat belts, for instance, use an awareness campaign stressing its life-saving benefits coupled with police fines for those who ignore the message. Of course, arresting or even fining visitors for their immodest dress would certainly create negative publicity for the UAE, a bad move for a country actively seeking to boost tourism numbers. Perhaps a more practical approach would be empowering mall security guards to actually bar visitors who aren’t dressed properly. A little gentle enforcement could go a long way.

The second culture-clash issue raised this week surrounded the Madonna concert. In mostly Arabic-language posts on Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, some Emiratis expressed their frustration that the risqué concert was being held in the UAE at all.

The outrage

These people argued that the UAE should not allow an artist such as Madonna to perform in the country since much of her performance — which features overt sexual themes and revealing costumes — would be offensive to many Emiratis.

This outrage comes a few weeks after another Muslim country, Indonesia, saw the cancellation of a concert by Lady Gaga, following complaints that the provocative singer’s performances weren’t appropriate for the conservative country. While I understand the perspective of these outraged Emiratis, I applaud the UAE government’s stance in allowing such performances. The difference between the two issues — dressing modestly versus potentially offensive concerts — comes down to a matter of intended audience.

The malls are a public space that everyone enjoys. Reasonable community standards should apply to all those who use it. While the Madonna concert was held in a public venue, only paying adults saw the show. No one at the Madonna concert attended without the express intention of seeing the artist perform.

This same reasoning is applied throughout the world when standards of community decency are considered. In legal parlance, many communities enforce “time, manner and place” restrictions on activities that some would find objectionable. Racy performances aren’t allowed in any public square, but secluded performances for specific audiences receive far more latitude. This liberal approach is good for the UAE. As an expatriate from the United States, I appreciate being able to see performances such as the Madonna show. I may not agree with all of her artistic expression — and I certainly would never take my 13-year-old daughter to her show —I do appreciate the freedom of being able to see Madonna perform if I choose.

Liberal attitude

When I was considering an international move, one of the many factors in picking the UAE was its liberal attitude towards issues such as the arts. I never considered moving to some other Gulf countries, in part because I knew that certain shows would simply never be allowed.

Refusing to allow performers such as Madonna in the UAE would send an unmistakable message to the global community. This message may discourage future tourists or expatriates from coming to the Emirates. While such a move would satisfy some complainants, the long-term growth of the UAE would suffer.

As the UAE struggles to balance the needs of a wildly varied populace, perhaps we can reach consensus somewhere in the middle. While continuing to allow latitude in private performances for specific audiences, we should treat the public spaces we all share with more respect.

Dr. Matt J. Duffy is an assistant professor of communication at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mattjduffy