Decisions, decisions

Another bad news story out of Dubai – a British woman goes into a shopping mall wearing a low-cut top; an Emirati woman objects; in response the British woman strips down to her bikini and carries on walking through the mall; is arrested for indecency, then released, with all charges dropped.

A tide of follow-up coverage included this opinion piece by travel writer Doug Lansky – originally posted on his Twitter stream and re-tweeted by San Francisco Chronicle travel editor Spud Hilton. It begins: “Dubai needs to make a decision. If they want to position themselves as a major tourist destination and business hub for Westerners and the rest of the world, they’re going to need to make some adjustments.”

Just to put this statement into context, here is some reaction to previous Dubai bad news stories. Back in 2007 the blog One Big Construction Site asserted: “Dubai has to decide whether it wants to become a giant Disney land devoid of its own culture.” Rashed Al Suwaidi, a reader of Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, responded to a poll in 2008 about indecency on public beaches by saying: “The UAE, especially Dubai, must decide what type of tourism it wants to encourage.”

In 2009 the blog Enduring Wanderlust mulled a change in Dubai’s decency laws, to which a reader, Kim Woodbridge, responded: “It’s important to respect the norms of the local culture. That being said Dubai needs to decide what they want to be.” A story by Mimi Chakarova for the PBS show Frontline World about prostitution and sex trafficking led one reader to assert: “Dubai needs to decide if it is a country bound by Islamic scripture or a country willing to allow what many consider immoral behavior.” As the Dubai newspaper 7Days reported the jailing of a woman for kissing in public earlier this year, one reader commented: “Dubai needs to decide whether it wants to welcome Western tourists or not.”

That’s an awful lot of deciding Dubai has to do.

In truth, of course, Dubai doesn’t have to decide anything, other than to do the best thing by its own people. Do we ever hear “France has to decide…”, “China has to decide…”, “Mexico has to decide…” Of course not. We all know French, Chinese and Mexican culture to be solid, rooted, uncontroversial. But someone digs a verbal rut and, forever after, everyone falls into it. The impression for the last twenty-odd years, since Dubai stopped being a little-known port city on a remote waterway, has been that there is some kind of dichotomy in Dubai’s make-up between being modern and being Arab, being contemporary and being Muslim, being exciting and being religious – and between all of them and also attracting mass tourism.

Such an impression is false. There is no dichotomy.

Culture is very hard to define. Broadly, you could say “it’s the way we do things here” – “we” being any group or person you fancy, “way” and “do” meaning whatever you want them to mean, “things” referring to whatever you want it to refer to, and “here” being anywhere from this room to this continent (or continents). We often use our culture as an instrument of power; imagining it to be the norm, we deride others for doing something different. By doing so, we identify ourselves as part of a majority, separate from a perceived minority. It’s very tribal.

Individual travellers know themselves to be in a minority when they travel – that’s often why they do it – so many deliberately try to suppress their own culture, in favour of learning about their hosts’ culture (and perhaps adopting some aspects of it). Andy Jarosz, who blogs at 501 Places, has written about it. By contrast many people who travel in groups, and expats, retain their majority identity, since they often deliberately surround themselves with people who share their culture. They then feel freer about ignoring – or deriding – their hosts’ culture, and asserting their own in opposition to it. This is what seems to have happened with this bikini story. Very tribal.

Faced with Dubai’s assertion of its own culture, visitors feel themselves shunted into a minority. It’s not a nice feeling, so journalists and travel bloggers write what appear (to their readers) eminently reasonable pieces insisting that something’s simply not right here, it’s all messed up and that Dubai simply must decide what it’s going to do in order to make them feel welcome – that is, part of the majority – again.

The truth is, of course, visitors to Dubai need to decide how they want to act. If they don’t care about their hosts’ culture, there’s a clear path of cultural assertion to follow.

If, however, they understand that their way of doing things is only one way of doing things – and that, much as lots of people in Britain might object to someone spitting on a bus, picking their nose or farting noisily in public (all things which, in different cultures, are perfectly normal mainstream behaviour), lots of people in Dubai object to low-cut tops and public displays of affection – then the tide of bad news/clash of culture stories coming out of Dubai might eventually slow to nothing.


  1. Gary Arndt

    I think the idea of making a decision is relevant when talking about Dubai because unlike the other countries you mentioned, they are pursuing two totally programs.

    On the one hand they are trying to get western tourists and encourage western companies including media and internet companies to come to their country.

    On the other hand, they arrest the very tourists they are trying to attract for engaging in behavior that would otherwise be totally legal where they are from. They also censor the internet and ban devices like the Blackberry which are contrary to anyone trying to run an internet or media business.

    I don’t see China or Russia trying to have it both ways like Dubai is.

    The fact is, this has nothing to do with the people of Dubai so much as it has to do with the ruling family of Dubai. Dubai is a personal fiefdom. The law is the personal wishes of the ruler. If the people had a real say in things, I’m guessing they might go one way or the other, but they probably wouldn’t try to do both.

    While what the woman did in the story you mention was rather stupid, acceptance of cultural norms works both ways. Yes, westerners should try to adapt to the norms of a place like Dubai. At the same time, if Dubai is going to promote itself as a tourist destination for westerners, they too have to adapt a bit. Else it is like inviting vegetarians to a stockyard.

  2. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for commenting, Gary. But what you identity as “having it both ways” happens in countries all over the world. If you’re a man, try going to Uganda on holiday and kissing your boyfriend in the street – “totally legal” where you come from. China censors the internet, but also wants big business to invest. Singapore actively seeks Western tourists, but arrests them if they chew gum.

    As for the idea that Dubai’s political system is somehow uniquely restrictive – well, it isn’t. Lots of outside observers don’t understand how political accountability can operate in systems which are not democratic. But it can. And does.

    London is – and has for a long time – promoted itself as a tourist destination for East Asians. Do you think the UK should change its laws to accommodate the culture of its Japanese tourists? How about Florida dropping its jaywalking laws because it’s also trying to attract British tourists, who’ve never heard of jaywalking?

    It doesn’t fit, Gary. The onus is always on the visitor.

  3. Andy Jarosz

    Resort-based tourism will always encourage different behaviour from cultural tourism. A hiking group for example are unlikely to risk provoking the same clashes with local laws as a group relaxing, eating and drinking in a beach hotel complex. Dubai is promoting mainstream tourism, and perhaps the tourists it is aiming to entice are not going to spend good money on choosing their destination ahead of others if they think they can’t behave there as they would elsewhere.

    “Be proud to your culture, Dubai” many would say. Why change your moral code to accommodate tourists from another continent with different ideas of decency? I have much sympathy with this argument. But it sits in stark contrast to the message portrayed in the glossy brochures of the holiday companies. The resulting PR troubles caused by this culture clash are perhaps inevitable.

    Good post Matthew (and thanks for the mention).

  4. David Whitley

    As you say, the onus is on the visitor. And if the potential visitor doesn’t like the cultural differences that Dubai presents, they shouldn’t go to Dubai.

    But the onus is also on the travel agents that sell packaged-up resort-style holidays to Dubai to make their clients aware of these differences before booking. Of course, such warnings are conducive to making money, are they?

  5. Hal Peat

    It’s really not surprising to read about the demands from some travel bloggers who react in a tribal and culturally imperialistic fashion. Their reasoning probably goes, since they’re used to making up titles for themselves and along the way also making up the future of online and print media, why not also impose on the local culture they’re visiting the “changes” it requires for the future? You know, the ones that fit in with their middle-class white suburban western nerd comfort zone? Next year, they can whip up a posse at TBEX to march on the new mosque they’re building near the WTC site and burn that down too. Afer all, New York needs to make a decision and not go both ways.

  6. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, all – interesting comments.

    Andy and David, you’re right – but the brochures of the holiday companies are written by people who don’t necessarily know any more about the destinations they’re promoting than their customers – some do, some don’t. And a lot of the confusion and misunderstandings rest on travel PR that is sometimes, well, economical with the truth…

    Hal – I don’t agree with your tone, or your outlook. Cool off, ditch the caricatures and the sarcasm, and come back some other day, eh?

  7. Francoise

    Totally agree with your statement about Dubai’s political system Matthew. It is not uniquely restrictive, just different from the systems we proscribe to in the West.

    In a nutshell, associating the ‘modernity’ of Dubai with Western cultural norms is where many go wrong when judging Dubai.

  8. Hal Peat

    Matthew – what’s my outlook, and what precisely do you disagree with about it? Here’s my outlook: cultural imperialism lives on in various guises. If that’s “cool” with you, then so be it. Also, there was no sarcasm since it’s literally true that there are people who want to shut down the building of a mosque in a supposedly democratic country. Just a fact – did you not note the return by journalist Fareed Zakaria of his ADL award to that organization over this very issue? So yes, it’s a matter of connecting the dots and arriving at a certain perspective, perhaps not in a way that suits your own outlook, but that’s what you have to put up with when you live in a democracy. Dubai isn’t that bad by comparison.

  9. Johanna


  10. Hal Peat

    Fareed’s my media hero du jour, Johanna. Just way superior in every way to culturally imperialistic tbex bloggerati.

  11. Jonnie Millar

    Matthew, you’re on the mark as far as stating it is the visitors’ place to decide though I must raise issue on whether the behavior demonstrated by this women is considered acceptable behavior anywhere.

    I find it hard to believe that faced with the same criticism in a shopping centre in the UK, that her behavior would be deemed acceptable there – or has reality TV and the slide in moral standards reached such lows that parading through Brent Cross in a bikini does not offend public decency?

    I’m pretty certain she would be hauled off by police if she pulled the same stunt in Selfridges.

  12. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, everyone, for commenting. Great to hear these perspectives. Jonnie, you’re quite right – if anyone were to parade in any public place in the UK in their underwear, they’d most likely be arrested. Not sure of your point, though – I don’t think I was saying that this bikini woman in Dubai shouldn’t have been arrested – quite the opposite!

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