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.