x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Truth lost in Dubai 'taxi tryst' tale that got UK tabloids in a twist

The western media is again obsessed with a UAE legal case that would probably be handled in a similar way by their own courts.

Another year, another scandal ... Last week, in what has become an almost annual rite, the UAE attracted considerable publicity overseas as a result of a decision in a court case dealing with inappropriate behaviour in public.

The case follows the much-reported 2008 one in which a British couple were convicted of engaging in an alcohol-fuelled sex romp on a public beach, and another more recent one in which a couple were sentenced for what was alleged to have been a steamy clinch in a mall.

This time a Briton and a citizen of Ireland have been sentenced to three months in jail for what one international news agency diplomatically described as "an intimate tryst in the back of a taxi", once again apparently alcohol-fuelled.

The actual activity involved, if the key prosecution witness is to be believed, was a little more lurid than that. I have no idea whether the facts of this particular case were those presented in testimony by the prosecution or by the defence and, in any case, the sentence is being appealed, so it would be wrong of me to offer an opinion either way.

I am, though, somewhat tired of the sloppy, ill-informed and subjective way in which the foreign media tends to report the outcomes of such cases - and, indeed, to make a big fuss about them even before they come to trial.

One news agency reported the "tryst" and the resulting prison sentence as being "the latest case of westerners running afoul of the social codes in the United Arab Emirates, which maintains strict laws on sex-related issues although it often turns a blind eye".

Other foreign media have referred to the "strict Islamic" rules of the Emirates, as though there were something innately Islamic about objecting to inappropriate behaviour in public.

I would have thought that inappropriate behaviour of the kind involved, in public, was inappropriate wherever it took place.

Let's go back to the encounter on the beach. Would it not have caused offence if it had taken place on a beach in Miami, or Cannes, or Brighton? Indeed, I wonder if a policeman there, at any time of the day or night, would have not immediately arrested the couple involved, rather than telling them to cool down, then moving on, only arresting them when he returned to find them at it again - and being insulted by them, to boot.

If the facts of that encounter, as presented to the court, were correct, then the couple involved would have been breaking the law in the United States, France or Britain, none of which have "strict Islamic" rules.

Indeed, any court sentences there might well have been longer than those handed down here. Just try it in a conservative community in the US "Bible Belt".

In any case, as is often forgotten, the three-month sentence was suspended on appeal, which seems to me to have been a remarkably relaxed approach from the court, rather than a "strict Islamic" one.

Likewise with the taxi tryst. I can well imagine that in London, where taxi drivers are accustomed to seeing all sorts of bad behaviour in the back of their cabs, a driver might seek the intervention of the police if a drunken pair of passengers overstepped the boundaries, even if he were not personally offended by what he might consider to be indecency in public.

Certainly, on the basis of evidence presented by the prosecution to the UAE court, the behaviour involved would have been contrary to public decency laws in the United Kingdom.

There's nothing innately "Islamic" about the case being brought, regardless of the prison sentence involved or whether or not the conviction is overturned on appeal.

As was noted in the news agency report on the latest case, the UAE (including its courts) "often turns a blind eye" to such incidents, if there are no complaints from members of the public.

It would be nice if the excitable foreign tabloid media paid more attention to that aspect of life here, rather than suggesting that the UAE is somehow a draconian fundamentalist society clamping down on offensive behaviour by drunken expatriates. We all know that's not the case.

In the meantime, I have a simple piece of advice for any couples who might find themselves on the edge of a similar situation: get a room!


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture