The incident involving two British nationals on the beach says more about Western morals than Muslim conservatism
Focus:Britons in trouble abroad arouse little sympathy at home
"Can you imagine what would happen if you behaved like this in the UK?" asked Enver Zekaj, an Albanian-born adviser to Dubai's Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities. He was considering the case of a drunken British couple, Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, who were arrested on the emirate's most fashionable beach after a police officer who politely asked them to stop engaging in sexual activity in public was allegedly subjected to verbal and, very nearly, physical abuse.
A similar question was posed by a spokesman at the embassy of the UAE in London. "If someone was doing this in Hyde Park, I wonder what the British police would do?" he asked journalists. Judging from the hundreds of comments posted on news websites by Britons, the answer to both these questions is: not much. Most people thought the story emphasised the impotence of the British police to do anything about declining standards there rather than unreasonable intolerance by the authorities in Dubai. They applauded the police in Dubai for refusing to put up with the kind of crude, antisocial behaviour that is now common in the UK.
By this weekend, the story had degenerated into a competition between British tabloid newspapers for unedifying revelations about Ms Palmer and Mr Acors. But serious commentators in the UK continued to ponder the message of the incident on the beach: this couple were thirtysomethings in good jobs, not illiterates from a sink estate. Yobbishness, it seems, had spread across social classes and generations and was now an unpleasant reality of British life.
"Of course standards have fallen," said Louis Henderson, a spokesman for the Church of England. "You see it all around you. People feel they are entitled to behave as they want." A BBC survey last autumn showed that four out of every five Britons believed the UK was in "moral decline". Most said they were more likely to help a stranger in distress than stop antisocial behaviour. The shorthand for this is "binge culture", but it is more than just spewing drunkenness in city and town centres on Friday and Saturday nights; it is a general contempt, often violent, for others.
Most contributors to the news websites thought Ms Palmer, 36, and Mr Acors, 34, whom she had met only a few hours earlier in a hotel bar on Jumeirah Beach, deserved to be punished severely. Many also pointed out that had Ms Palmer, originally from Leicester, and Mr Acors, a divorced father-of-one from Kent who the British press describe as "a telecoms boss", behaved like animals on heat on a British beach, they would have escaped with no more than disapproving glances. In similar cases, no one dares to intervene in case the culprits turned on them.
Even readers of The Sun, the infamously xenophobic British tabloid, approved of what the authorities in Dubai had done. This was ironic since the newspaper had broken the story in a manner suggesting that while Ms Palmer and her companion had been stupid, they did not deserve to go to jail. The Sun sniggered that "randy Michelle" had only been "canoodling with a holiday hunk". However, most newspapers' readers did not think it was merely a case of harmless high spirits. Writing to the Daily Mail, "Dave N" from Leeds was typical: "How refreshing to find a country where a line has been drawn with no grey areas. Behave like this and you will be punished - great! No smarmy lawyers, no social workers, no doctor's notes claiming 'depression' caused changes in behaviour. Just good, old-fashioned punishment for those who lack any sense of personal responsibility.
One of the few readers who sympathised with the pair - and argued that no one would now want to holiday in Dubai - was swiftly shouted down. Mark, from Spain, said the opposite was true: "I imagine a lot of people would want to go to Dubai now as you know you are not going to get drunks fornicating in the street and abusing the country they are visiting. How refreshing." Britons who live in the Middle East wrote that Ms Palmer, in particular, had no excuse since she moved to Dubai three years ago. As an intelligent woman - she worked for a magazine publishing company in Dubai until she was sacked after her arrest - she must have known the possible consequences of getting drunk in public. The allegation is that she not only got very drunk indeed, but proceeded to have sex, openly on the beach, in a country where it is illegal to kiss in public.
Then, it is further alleged, she swore - and swung a shoe - at a police officer. "She should have known better," wrote one reader. "She can blame drink if she wants, but she is not some teenager on holiday. She gets no sympathy from me. I lived in Dubai and Oman for 13 years and I saw many idiots like her get themselves into trouble." Ms Palmer and Mr Acors have not been helped by their friends. In interviews with British newspapers, they talked in terms that suggested that neither they nor Ms Palmer saw much wrong with her lifestyle, which included drinking heavily and having casual sex. One friend said Ms Palmer was "a nice girl" who was always "out to party" and enjoyed "getting hammered" at the brunches organised by beach bars. One former colleague said: "Every Friday, she's out on the dance floor - drunk, loud, raucous and completely out of control." Meanwhile, Mr Acors's friends acclaimed him as a "top-class bird puller".
After she had been freed on bail, and now sober, unemployed and facing a possible jail sentence, Ms Palmer was contrite about the incident on the beach in the early hours of Saturday morning a week ago. She wrote on a blog: "We have all made silly, regretful mistakes in life, of which some pay all too dearly. I am good, I am kind and I am true. The fear I feel each time I close my eyes fills my heart with dread. Please be sympathetic for the sake of those I love, if this were you, your sister/brother, your daughter/son, how would you really be feeling?"
But many are simply unwilling to grant her plea for sympathy. At the Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities, Mr Zekaj, 39, who has lived in Dubai for 16 years, said it was essential for the authorities to "make an example of" the couple when they faced trial for a range of public order offences, including being drunk, behaving indecently and - in the case of Ms Palmer - assaulting a police officer. Mr Zekaj said it was in the long-term interest of the emirate, and the UAE as a whole, that the pair should be jailed if found guilty.
If the authorities were lenient, Mr Zekaj feared, other visitors might think Dubai was more interested in earning money from tourism than enforcing moral standards. "A Muslim country is totally different from the West. We want to be able to take our wives and children to the beach and not to see such things. If we do nothing, if we give our finger, they will take our hand," he said. Wherever he looked, said Mr Zekaj, there were disturbing signs that Emirati standards were being flouted. "In malls, you can see the underwear of young women tourists. We need a dress code here. Visitors must be made aware they must show respect or there will be consequences."
Some lawyers believe Ms Palmer and Mr Acors will be jailed if convicted. Tony Maalouli, managing partner of Proconsult Advocates and Legal Consultants in Dubai, said the couple might have escaped with a fine and a warning if they had "only" had sex; but he thought the court would not be amused if either were proved to have sworn at, or attempted to strike, a police officer. He said the authorities wanted to send a message to tourists. "Tourists come to Dubai and think it is Europe. They see the sunshine and the beaches. They forget it is a Muslim country. Dubai is tolerant of many things, but will not tolerate verbal and physical violence."
Dr Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University in England who has lived in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah and has just published a book on Dubai, said many Emiratis had justifiable misgivings about the effect the tourism boom was having on their country. "Increasingly western norms are taking root, particularly in Dubai," he said. "And all this has happened very quickly. I have to ask, how long will the Emiratis tolerate this volume of culturally incompatible tourists?"
He said tour companies should hand out brochures to every visitor setting out acceptable behaviour and stressing that kissing in public was forbidden and no one should think of drinking alcohol from open containers in public. "In its current format, I believe that mass tourism is a mistake," he said. "There is not enough segregation between public space and tourist areas. "I would hope that the new hotels and tourist complexes being built in Abu Dhabi would turn out to be more secluded and away from the public spotlight. It is important that everyone knows what is public space, where Emirati rules apply, and what is obviously a private space."
Veteran expatriates in Abu Dhabi have also been observing events in Dubai with a mixture of concern - that mass tourism is bringing predictable problems - and relief that Abu Dhabi wishes to be known as a five-star destination where cultural pursuits are as important as sunshine. One Briton, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for more than 20 years, said: "It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. If you open your doors to mass tourism, this sort of thing is inevitable."
Mike McGrath, 46, general manager of The Club, one of the most popular sports and social centres for expatriates in the city, said the antics of Ms Palmer and Mr Acors reflected "falling standards" in the West. Incidents such as this were the "flip side" of the money that Dubai earned from tourism. Prof James Pounder, the acting provost of Abu Dhabi University, who comes from Sheffield, thought there were dangers as Dubai became increasingly popular with - and affordable to - younger, less sophisticated people. It was not just that some would behave as badly as Ms Palmer and Mr Acors had allegedly done, he said; there was also likely to be a long-term impact on Emirati youth. Prof Pounder said when he moved to Hong Kong in 1984, local youngsters were quiet and demure; when he left 21 years later, they were thoroughly westernised.
The challenge facing Dubai and the rest of the UAE, he said, was to retain its traditional values. It would not be easy. "Young Emiratis will be influenced," he said. "The question is, by how much and what can the country do about it?" firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by Alan Philps, associate editor, in London