Why do certain people like to take cheap shots at Dubai?
On May 28, 1955, the P&O liner Strathmore docked in London after a 22,000-kilometre voyage from Australia, via outposts of empire including Port Said, the northern gateway to the Suez Canal.
The archived passenger list reads like a census of the British Empire. Secretary, farmer, army officer, pharmacist, florist, librarian, builder, engineer – these were the small cogs that kept the wheels of the giant machine turning. Among the 929 passengers who disembarked in London that day was my mother, 34 years old and four months pregnant with me. Boarding the Strathmore at Port Said, she had travelled home alone. My father, a British soldier, had remained in the canal zone.
Egypt in 1955, a boiling cauldron of anti-British sentiment – stirred by nationalist leader Gamel Abdel Nasser and seasoned by Britain’s refusal to withdraw its troops – was no place for a British baby to be born. That, however, was not the sole explanation for my mother’s departure from Suez, where she had been working as a secretary.
It was only recently, long after her death, that I discovered my mother and the man on my birth certificate had never been married, which explained why I grew up without a father. The manifest offered one clue – though pregnant, she had sailed under her maiden name. I found another in the register of graves at a cemetery in London.
After the death of my grandmother in 1969, my mother had inherited the family grave and in the margin of the register entry I recognised my mother’s handwriting. In June 1955, four months before I was born, she had changed her surname from her maiden name to my father’s – not by marriage, but by statutory declaration.
My unmarried mother’s retreat in disgrace from Suez in 1955 presaged that of Britain itself. The following year Nasser nationalised the canal, triggering the petulant invasion of Egypt by Britain and France, in cahoots with Israel. Widely condemned as an unacceptable last gasp of western imperialism, the invasion was bloody but short-lived. The resentment of my mother and many of her generation towards Arabs, who had defied and finally ejected the failing empire, however, was lifelong.
It wasn’t just about Egypt. The people who had lorded it over the Middle East for generations could not stomach the reality that, even as Britain’s fortunes were waning, so those of the Arab world were waxing – buoyed, in the case of Mesopotamia, Iran and the Trucial States along the Gulf, by the rising tide of oil. This, surely, was by rights Britain’s black gold, the colonials argued, discovered by its oil companies and paid for in two world wars with British blood. That it had to be left behind in the humiliating withdrawal from east of Suez left a bitter taste.
Envy, especially when blended with subtextual racism, is an unattractive characteristic, to which entire countries as well as individuals are susceptible. It can be witnessed to this day in the British media’s ambiguous obsession with the “oil rich” UAE, especially Dubai, and its parallel high-handed irritation that a sovereign state has the temerity to set its own laws and expects visitors to abide by them.
Even the snarky British press sometimes finds it hard not to be impressed by Dubai, reporting with a snide mix of astonishment and disdain on everything from the Palm and the world’s tallest building to (in the past month alone) plans for hyperloop trains and passenger-carrying drones. Yet the superficial admiration of this “only in Dubai” coverage is frequently tinged with an ugly subtext – “How can they pull this off?” meets “More money than sense”. The fact that Dubai’s success is built not on oil, of which it had very little, but on sheer inventive determination, is overlooked.
Sometimes, the resentful prejudice bubbles up to the surface. On the one hand, Dubai has been adopted by Britain’s reality-TV classes, and the newspapers they read, as a symbol of arriviste success. Barely a day passes without the Daily Mail’s infamous online sidebar carrying photographs of transiently famous young women, posing in various states of undress on Dubai’s beaches or outside one of its restaurants, bars or clubs. None of these footballers’ wives or reality TV “stars” has, apparently, seen the dress and behaviour advice offered to visitors by the UK embassy in the UAE: “Emiratis are friendly people who show tolerance and an open-minded approach to visitors ... but their culture and values should always be respected.”
But woe betide Dubai the moment a Brit falls foul of local laws, as one did, yet again, at the beginning of February.
Dubai-dissing is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the worst example to date was the 2009 article The dark side of Dubai, for which British journalist Johann Hari won awards before he was exposed as a plagiarist who made up quotes. Then there was the astonishing assault on the “sterile and morally destitute” Dubai by a Daily Telegraph journalist whose investigation amounted to three hours spent at the airport.
Dubai’s success goads British journalists into abandoning the most fundamental tenet of journalism – check the facts. This month, not one British media outlet, including the BBC, bothered to check the facts behind an unverified claim that Dubai was “refusing to let a British woman fly home for life-saving cancer treatment because her charity work in the UAE has angered officials”, as the Daily Mail put it. Police, it was widely reported in the UK, had confiscated and refused to return her passport.
“I’ve never done anything wrong and I’m being treated like a murderer,” charity worker Luisa Williams, 41, told the Daily Mirror and many other newspapers on February 1. She feared she would be jailed if she tried to recover her passport.
In fact, despite having apparently lived in Dubai for 10 years, during which time most expats have figured out the rules, she appears to have broken the law by soliciting for donations for a charity on Facebook. As the UK embassy advises, “promoting fund raising or other acts of charity in the UAE ... including where conducted online and via social media, are heavily regulated [and] non-compliance can incur criminal penalties”.
On February 4 the media office of the Government of Dubai issued a statement “to clarify that Ms Williams was not barred from leaving the UAE”. In fact, “contrary to reports in the media”, on December 12 a court had fined her Dh5,000 and ordered her deportation. Ms Williams, it continued, “was supposed to report to authorities after the ruling ... to collect her passport and pay the fine, after which she would have been free to leave the country”.
Too late – the media circus had moved on. As for Ms Williams, according to postings on her Instagram page, she managed to leave the UAE and has had her surgery, though in Cape Town, not the UK. This story is merely the latest of its kind and certainly won’t be the last. Dubai, which hosted 14.9 million overseas visitors in 2016 and expects 20 million by the time of Expo 2020, has a thick skin and can take it.
The truly sad thing about this propensity for stereotyping Dubai as either a high-tech holiday paradise for arrivistes or a harsh state ready to punish unwary westerners is not what it says about the UAE, but what it reveals about the lingering attitudes of a nation still struggling to come to terms with its loss of global influence, nowhere more painfully so than east of Suez.
The Suez debacle was 60 years ago. Perhaps it’s time to get over it and show some respect.
Jonathan Gornall is a frequent contributor to The National
Updated: February 23, 2017 04:00 AM