Why Dubai's Islamic austerity is a sham - sex is for sale in every bar
Couples who publicly kiss are jailed, yet the state turns a blind eye
to 30,000 imported prostitutes, says William Butler

William Butler
The Observer,
Sunday 16 May 2010

Dancers in a Dubai hotel. Photograph: Rex Features

The bosomy blonde in a tight, low-cut evening dress slid on to a
barstool next to me and began the chat: Where are you from? How long
are you here? Where are you staying? I asked her what she did for a
living. "You know what I do," she replied. "I'm a whore."

As I looked around the designer bar on the second floor of the glitzy
five-star hotel, it was obvious that every woman in the place was a
prostitute. And the men were all potential punters, or at least
window-shoppers.

While we talked, Jenny, from Minsk in Belarus, offered me "everything,
what you like, all night" for the equivalent of about £500. It was
better if I was staying in the luxurious hotel where we were drinking,
she said, but if not she knew another one, cheaper but "friendly". I
turned down the offer.

This was not Amsterdam's red-light district or the Reeperbahn in
Hamburg or a bar on Shanghai's Bund. This was in the city centre of
Dubai, the Gulf emirate where western women get a month in prison for
a peck on the cheek; the Islamic city on Muhammad's peninsula where
the muezzin's call rings out five times a day drawing believers to
prayer; where public consumption of alcohol prompts immediate arrest;
where adultery is an imprisonable offence; and where mall shoppers are
advised against "overt displays of affection", such as kissing.

Ayman Najafi and Charlotte Adams, the couple recently banged up in Al
Awir desert prison for a brief public snog, must have been very
unlucky indeed, because in reality Dubai is a heaving maelstrom of
sexual activity that would make the hair stand up on even the most
worldly westerner's head. It is known by some residents as
"Sodom-sur-Mer".

Beach life, cafe society, glamorous lifestyles, fast cars and deep
tans are all things associated with "romance" in the fog-chilled minds
of Europeans and North Americans. And there is a fair amount of
legitimate "romance" in Dubai. Western girls fall for handsome, flash
Lebanese men; male visitors go for the dusky charms of women from
virtually anywhere. Office and beach affairs are common.

But most of the "romance" in Dubai is paid-for sex, accepted by
expatriates as the norm, and to which a blind eye is turned - at the
very least - by the authorities. The bar where "Jenny" approached me
was top-of-the-range, where expensively dressed and coiffured girls
can demand top dollar from wealthy businessmen or tourists.

There are lots of these establishments. Virtually every five-star
hotel has a bar where "working girls" are tolerated, even encouraged,
to help pull in the punters with cash to blow. But it goes downhill
from there. At sports and music bars, Fillipinas vie with the Russians
and women from the former Soviet republics for custom at lower prices.
In the older parts of the city, Deira and Bur Dubai, Chinese women
undercut them all in the lobbies of three-star hotels or even on the
streets (although outside soliciting is still rare).

It is impossible to estimate accurately the prostitute population of
Dubai. The authorities would never give out such figures, and it would
be hard to take into account the "casual" or "part-time" sex trade.
One recent estimate put the figure at about 30,000 out of a population
of about 1.5 million. A similar ratio in Britain would mean a city the
size of Glasgow and Leeds combined entirely populated by prostitutes.


Of course, there are other cities in the world where the "oldest
profession" is flourishing. But what makes Dubai prostitution
different is the level of acceptance it has by the clients and,
apparently, the city's Islamic authorities. Although strictly illegal
under United Arab Emirates' and Islamic law, it is virtually a
national pastime.

I have seen a six-inch-high stack of application forms in the offices
of a visa agent, each piece of paper representing a hopeful "tourist"
from Russia, Armenia or Uzbekistan. The passport-sized photographs are
all of women in their 20s seeking one-month visas for a holiday in the
emirate.

Maybe young Aida from Tashkent - oval-eyed and pouting - will find a
few days' paid work as a maid or shop assistant while she's in Dubai,
and maybe she will even get an afternoon or two on the beach as her
holiday. But most nights she will be selling herself in the bars and
hotels and the immigration authorities know that. So must the visa
agent, who gets his cut out of each £300 visa fee.

The higher you go up the Emirati food chain, the bigger the awards.
All UAE nationals are entitled to a number of residence visas, which
they routinely use to hire imported domestics, drivers or gardeners.
But they will sell the surplus to middlemen who trade them on to women
who want to go full-time and permanent in the city. The higher the
social and financial status of the Emirati, the more visas he has to
"farm".

Thousands of women buy entitlement to full-time residence, and
lucrative employment, in this way. Three years in Dubai - the normal
duration of a residence visa - can be the difference between lifelong
destitution and survival in Yerevan, Omsk or Bishkek.

With a residence visa changing hands at upwards of £5,000 a time, it
is a nice sideline, even for a wealthy national. And it also ensures a
convenient supply of sex for Emiratis, who form a large proportion of
the punters at the kind of bar where I met "Jenny". Arabs from other
countries are high up the "johns" list, with Saudis in particular
looking for distraction from life in their austere Wahabist homes with
booze and sex-fuelled weekends in Dubai's hotels.

The other big category of punters is Europeans and Americans, and it
is remarkable how quickly it all seems normal. A few drinks with the
lads on a Thursday night, maybe a curry, some semi-intoxicated
ribaldry, and then off to a bar where you know "that" kind of girl
will be waiting. In the west, peer group morality might frown on such
leisure activities, but in Dubai it's as normal as watching the
late-night movie.

Male residents whose families are also in Dubai might be a little
constrained most of the year - you could not really introduce Ludmilla
from Lvov, all cleavage and stilettos, as a work colleague with whom
you wanted to "run over a few things on the laptop". But in the long,
hot summer it is different. Wives and families escape the heat by
going to Europe or the US, and the change that comes over the male
expat population is astounding. Middle-aged men in responsible jobs -
accountants, marketeers, bankers - who for 10 months of the year are
devoted husbands, transform in July and August into priapic stallions
roaming the bars of Sheikh Zayed Road.

Tales are swapped over a few beers the next night, positions
described, prices compared, nationalities ranked according to
performance. It could be the Champions League we are discussing, not
paid-for sex.

I've heard financial types justifying it as part of the process of
globalisation, another manifestation of the west-east "tilt" by which
world economic power is gravitating eastwards.

In my experience, many men will be unfaithful if they have the
opportunity and a reasonable expectation that they will not be found
out. For expats in Dubai, the summer months provide virtual laboratory
conditions for infidelity.

Above all, there is opportunity. There is the Indonesian maid who
makes it apparent that she has no objection to extending her duties,
for a price; the central Asian shop assistant in one of the glittering
malls who writes her mobile number on the back of your credit card
receipt "in case you need anything else"; the Filipina manicurist at
the hairdresser's who suggests you might also want a pedicure in the
private room.

Even though selling sex is haram (forbidden) under Islamic law, the
authorities rarely do anything about it. Occasionally, an
establishment will break some unwritten rule. Cyclone, a notorious
whorehouse near the airport, was closed down a few years back, but
then it really did go too far - a special area of the vast sex
supermarket was dedicated to in-house oral sex. When the authorities
ordered it to be closed, the girls simply moved elsewhere.

There are occasional stories in the local papers of human trafficking
rings being broken up and the exploiters arrested, but it is low-level
stuff, usually involving Asian or Chinese gangs and Indian or Nepalese
girls. The real problem is the high-end business, with official
sanction. Even with the emirate's financial problems, Sodom-sur-Mer is
flourishing. But would-be snoggers beware - your decadent behaviour
will not be tolerated.


William Butler is a pseudonym for a writer who lived in Dubai for four
years and recently returned to Britain