When the average westerner thinks of the Arabian Peninsula, he most likely envisions some odd amalgamation of O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif, and burkas. To him, “The Gulf” still conjures these and other remnants of outdated orientalism. What many fail to see is that the region is home to wealthy, booming, modern metropolises. In fact, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are more like Las Vegas – a pleasure filled playground for the rich – than most are willing to admit.
Just like America’s “Sin City,” Dubai offers a plethora of unforgettable experiences. For the right price, you can enjoy the city just about any way you’d like. It should be no surprise that in such a busy city, the world’s oldest profession is alive and well. Prostitution thrives here and is not hard to find, either. Expensive European purveyors loiter around the bars of 5-star hotels while their cheaper colleagues hawk their wares elsewhere. In the city, such activity is business as usual.
The unabashed transactions might shock Westerners or Muslim pilgrims who imagine the Emirates to be more like their neighbors, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, the Muttawa, a special religious police force, keep that kind of behavior in check – or at least, not out in the open. In Dubai, however, no such force exists and the sex trade continues at bus stops, on sidewalks, in hotels, at bars… you get the idea.
The abundance of prostitutes and their clients does raise a few questions. After all, for all its modernity, Dubai is still under Islamic Law. In the Emirates, it’s illegal and punishable for couples to kiss in public, yet thousands of imported hookers conduct their affairs with hardly any trouble. Journalist William Butler estimates the number of prostitutes in the city to “figure at about 30,000” – that’s close to 2% of the whole city. Butler puts it different terms: “A similar ratio in Britain would mean a city the size of Glasgow and Leeds combined” made up only of prostitutes. Although this profession exists in almost every major world city, it’s the level of national acceptance that surprises Butler and many other observers.
The Emirates aren’t the only places Muslims visit for this type of experience. Bahrain is a nearby opportunity to enjoy the revelries. Apparently, when the Muttawa’s away, the Saudis will play.
The Emirates aren’t the only places Muslims visit for this type of experience. For the less religiously committed youths of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a nearby opportunity to enjoy the many revelries offered. Apparently, when the Muttawa’s away, the Saudis will play.
Despite the seemingly apathetic – perhaps even enthusiastic – behavior of the general public, some Emiratis are starting to speak out against the cities growing sex trades. Most of the blame for this market and other non-traditional behaviors is falling on the shoulders of Western expats and foreigners. Emirati journalist Acil Tabbarah believes “if officials do not take bold steps, the social costs of this frantic economic development,” the same development that attracts foreign thrill-seekers, “will be much greater than any economic benefits.”
While unmonitored prostitution is dangerous for all parties involved, it is, in the case of Dubai, a shocking dose of reality. For Westerners and guileless dogmatists, the facts point to a considerably adulterated Arabian Peninsula where money and sex rule the streets. How’s that for a fresh perspective?
*J. E. Millington is a freelance Journalist living in Dubai