The dark side of Dubai
Sneaky selfies, a sleeping Swede and a pair of shattered spectacles. The details of a post-brunch debacle in Dubai are laughably mundane, but they may result in jail for a young British woman who seems to have been an innocent bystander to a booze-fuelled brawl. The expat Asa Hutchinson, who is 21 and originally from Chelmsford in Essex, was arrested last week after an altercation erupted between a group of her male friends and a Swedish man in his fifties who had fallen asleep in a hotel lobby. The male tourists, who have since left Dubai, were taking photos with the slumbering executive after a brunch at Dusty’s bar in the city’s financial district when he awoke and expressed his displeasure. A fight ensued during which his glasses were broken. Although Hutchinson, who has been living and working in Dubai for three years, was not directly involved in the fracas, she faces charges of assault, theft and (bizarrely) fraud, having apparently moved the glasses to a nearby bin. She’s on bail, having surrendered her passport to the police.
It’s the second high-profile case of a Brit coming unstuck in the United Arab Emirates in as many months. In late October a Dubai judge sentenced the Scottish electrician Jamie Harron to three months’ jail for touching a businessman on the hip in a crowded bar. Harron was subsequently pardoned by special order of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum after a social-media outcry. Among the Emirati elite it is acknowledged that these thunderclaps of conspicuous discipline are part of the business of being in Dubai, which involves serving up rivers of booze to godless westerners while pretending not to. The sporadic detainments are a not-very-subtle dog whistle to what is called “the Arab street” — conservative Emiratis who fear their land is going to hell in a handbag which, of course, it is — a Louis Vuitton one, naturally. Harron and Hutchison are collateral damage. Whenever I hear stories such as theirs I have a “there but for the grace of God” moment. Ten years ago I was working as a magazine editor during Dubai’s giddiest and gaudiest period of expansion. Towering five-star hotels and entire road networks would appear seemingly overnight thanks to the 24/7 toil of vast armies of exhausted migrants.
I lived a wickedly lavish version of the Dubai dream, frequenting Ski Dubai, the refrigerated mall mountain, complete with penguins, and attending all-day Friday brunches with limitless Moët. With so many new restaurants and bars to, ahem, “review”, I didn’t cook a meal in 18 months. If I wasn’t drunk, it was because I was hungover. The constant drinking was illicit, of course — like most expats, I didn’t go to the trouble of obtaining the obligatory alcohol licence — but this was just one of the ways in which I diced with Dubai daily. I lived in an illegally sublet apartment with women I wasn’t married to. I went to sweaty underground dance parties with men who weren’t the marrying kind. In November 2008, after attending a wedding in northern Italy, I arrived back in Dubai via the airport’s newly opened Terminal 3, which was still something of a building site, its floors dotted with huge dusty craters. It was a big month for the city, one that would culminate in the opening of the $1.5 billion (£1.11 billion) Atlantis, The Palm hotel. I had heard that security at the airport had been ramped up to deal with the prospect of an incoming rent-a-crowd which, featuring Lindsay Lohan, her girlfriend Samantha Ronson and the like, read like a roll call of problematic celebrity. As a lone man with outlandish hair, I was used to being collared by officials at the airport. Typically they seemed preoccupied by whether or not I smoked — presumably the hallmark of someone capable of more egregious vices. But this felt different. I was pulled over for a luggage inspection by a young man dressed in a pristine white dishdasha. From my battered leather holdall he removed my running shoes, which had seen a rare moment of athleticism in autumnal Liguria, and started picking half-heartedly at detritus on the sole. “Marijuana?” he asked. “No, no. They’re leaves,” I replied, trying not to sound patronising. He consulted senior colleagues in Arabic. I attempted to exude respectability rather than prosecco. Clearly it wasn’t working, given what he said to me next. “If you admit that you’re carrying drugs, we’ll reduce your prison sentence.” Bewildered, I said nothing at all as my bag was taken away for further inspection, and when it came back it was with a litany of imaginative allegations. The blister-packed medication I take for Crohn’s disease was confiscated on suspicion of being “the dancing drug”. A copy of Vogue Italia was waved disdainfully in my face: “You like boys?” Not at all, I replied. When the bag reappeared it was with the surprise addition of a baby’s bottle half-full of milk, its teat poking from the side pocket. It certainly hadn’t been there ten minutes ago. My expat dream was turning into Kafka, with camels. I was taken off to a harshly lit white room and instructed to strip to my boxer shorts. My clothes were taken away for “testing”, then returned to me. Phew. I got dressed, only for the rigmarole to be repeated. Fastening my belt for a second time, I slipped. The back of my hand grazed the official’s arm. He fixed me with a furious stare, then left the room. Clearly, things were getting serious. It was only now that I realised, gratefully, my phone was still in the back pocket of my jeans. I sent a text to my colleague Collette: “Detained at airport. Help if not at desk tomorrow.” Unbeknown to me, she was on a first date with an Egyptian lawyer. I later learnt that they hatched a boozy action plan to liberate me. Just one of the ways to get to know a person in Dubai. After a long wait I was led off for interrogation by the chief of airport police, who seemed amused and distracted by turns as he quizzed me about my supposed massive haul of Ecstasy. “I take one of those NINE times a day,” I tried to reason. “If it was Ecstasy I’d be permanently, er . . .” I tried to think of an appropriate charade for “spangled”. Shifting tack, I produced my business card with its local phone numbers and office address. Business cards are a big deal in Dubai, presumably because they complement the general 1980s vibe. “I’m a good boy,” I remember saying over and over. “I know the rules.” Either it worked, or he got bored, because he sent me on my way with my bag and something resembling a smile. I threw away the baby’s bottle. Radha Stirling of the NGO Detained in Dubai points out that most expats and visitors to Dubai are in breach of the rules most of the time. “Dressing inappropriately, behaving badly and drinking alcohol — these behaviours remain illegal, but people forget that because Dubai seems so modern and so many other people are getting away with it,” she tells me over the phone from Istanbul airport en route to meet her latest client. Stirling represents Hutchinson and Harron — her intervention was doubtless instrumental in the exoneration of the latter — and wants the Foreign Office to be more upfront about the potential dangers for Britons travelling to Dubai. Within a month of my airport episode I had relocated to Amsterdam. (What can I say — I like a contrast.) I’ve kept an eye on the old place over the past decade, of course. As the global credit crunch deepened and Dubai’s pretensions of financial invincibility were knocked for six, I assumed the emirate might go easy on the rogue detentions. Apparently not. A statement from the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE notes that: “Since the Arab Spring of 2011, repression has been rapidly stepped up by the UAE authorities, which has seen both Emiratis and non-Emiratis arbitrarily detained, forcefully disappeared, and in many cases tortured on the most frivolous of charges.” The word frivolous is often levelled against Dubai. It seems to encapsulate what the rest of the world thinks of the place — a fake paradise for vulgar people. That’s unfair and untrue in lots of ways, but Dubai is doing itself no favours with its plastic laws. Perhaps they will melt in the glare of social media. Stirling certainly hopes so. “The fact is the world is angry at them for locking up people like Jamie and Asa, and all the other people they’re detaining without due process,” she says. The website of my old magazine, Time Out Dubai, carries a gushing article about the latest in a slew of Hollywood-inspired theme parks, which opened its doors last month. “The first-ever World of Hunger Games will transport thrill-seekers into the thick of Katniss Everdeen’s world,” it says. Panem, the nation state that is the setting for Suzanne Collins’s novels and the blockbuster films they inspired, is an authoritarian dictatorship where entertainment is a weapon of mass distraction and citizens forfeit their political agency in exchange for material abundance. In Dubai, you needn’t pay an entrance fee for a glimpse of that. Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk on December 4th 2017