A Perspective from Dubai

by | June 24, 2015, 4:09am 0

It’s been a few months since the World Championships of Beach Ultimate wrapped up in sun-soaked Dubai.  I wanted to get this article out a lot sooner, but in the grand scheme of things, the relevance of the topics discussed is not going anywhere.

I am originally from the United States, but have been lucky enough to call Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, “home” for the past six years. I was also a member of the UAE Open Team at the WCBU.  As I hope every visitor for the tournament felt, Dubai is an extremely welcoming, friendly and safe place for people from all over the globe.  It is a true melting pot, with over 80% of the city’s population consisting of expatriate workers–myself included–representing over 200 nations.  With that kind of diversity, Dubai is a fascinating blend of cultures and customs.

I loved being a part of the UAE Open Team, but as much as I enjoyed playing, I enjoyed watching all of the tremendous talent grace our beaches even more.  Nearly a full mile of one of the nicest beaches in Dubai was filled with top ultimate talent from around the world.  It was truly a beautiful sight to witness!

In addition to wanting to praise the tournament organizers, who did a great job, and congratulate all of the athletes who competed, I wanted to take this opportunity to offer my perspective on two issues that were raised by Chip Cobb in an excellent article titled “Something Worth Saying” that appeared in Skyd just before the tournament started.  The article highlighted some troubling laws in Dubai related to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered (“LGBT”) individuals and it also questioned the treatment of women in Dubai society.

In his article, Chip requested the perspective of someone in the Dubai Ultimate community to help fill out the discussion because he has not visited Dubai and relied chiefly on the US State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report on the United Arab Emirates (the “Rights Report”) for data points.

In addition to being a member of the Dubai Ultimate community, I am also a lawyer who has practiced law in both the United States and the UAE for several years.  Although I think that my background as a lawyer and longtime UAE resident gives me some qualification to provide insightful commentary, I am also a straight male, and so my view of LGBT concerns and women’s rights should be understood as coming from that limited vantage point.

Women in Dubai Society

In Something Worth Saying, Chip makes the point, with reference to the Rights Report, that women in the UAE face discrimination and are “limited in the jobs they can access.”  While I will not dispute that gender equality is an issue in the UAE, just as it is in many nations, I want to give some factual background on the place that women hold in the country, both legally and practically.

Despite these laudable achievements, the UAE openly recognizes that it has more work to do in order to continue to advance the standing of women in society.  In 2015 a “Gender Balance Council” was established by the federal government in order to assist in increasing the role of women in leadership positions throughout society. Earlier this year, the U.S. Congressional Research Service stated that “Progress on women’s political rights [in the UAE] has been steady, as exemplified by the November 2011 appointment of a woman as deputy FNC Speaker…the UAE is perhaps the only country in the Middle East where women are fully accepted working in high-paying professions such as finance and banking”.

As a lawyer who was previously working every day in the Dubai International Financial Center (the “DIFC”), I can say that the role of women in the legal community here did not appear to differ in any way from what I saw while practicing in New York City or Los Angeles.  In fact, the chief legal officer of the DIFC during my time there was a women, as is the managing partner of one of the largest law firms in the region.

In addition to action at the federal level, Dubai maintains the Dubai Women’s Establishment (the “DWE”), a government entity with a mandate that includes “extensive research to identify and quantify the status of women in the workforce of Dubai, as well as initiatives towards women’s further development opportunities.  Awareness and policies that are conducive to women in the workforce are also recommended by the establishment to enable women to play greater roles within the UAE and on a global scale.”

While discussing this topic, a female attorney at the law firm where I previously worked in Dubai told me, “Over the past 20 years, I have travelled extensively to many nations and can honestly say that I have never felt safer or as respected as a women as I have felt while living in Dubai.  Guns, drugs and pornography are all illegal in the UAE, and while some may feel that these are freedoms that one should have, I feel that the absence of them in this society makes it an inherently safer, and therefore freer, place to live – especially for women.” While far from perfect, the UAE, and Dubai specifically, are incredibly open and safe places for women.

I was reminded of the struggles in our own country with gender equality issues awhile back when a UAE female fighter pilot, Mariam Al-Mansouri, was hailed as a hero here in Dubai for her bombing raids on ISIS in Syria, yet she was mocked in the United States with sexist comments by national news commentators.

Chip correctly noted the troubling passage in the Rights Report which points out that under the law in the UAE prohibiting sex outside of marriage, a victim of sexual assault could be arrested and prosecuted if the alleged perpetrator of the crime was found to be not guilty and the sexual encounter was deemed consensual. This is not simply a women’s rights issue because, when it is found that the sexual encounter was consensual, both the man and the women are charged with the crime of sex outside of marriage.  Nonetheless, given the difficulty in “proving” sexual assault, this is indeed very troubling and could deter victims, male or female, from coming forward.

My understanding is that these cases in Dubai are exceedingly rare  (I was able to find four such cases in the past ten years), but even one such case is not acceptable. The last case that I am aware of arose in 2013 and resulted in a quick pardon from the Ruler of Dubai for the women who filed the claim, even though the court found both parties to be guilty of consensual sex outside of marriage. Hopefully that is a sign that things are changing for the better and will continue to evolve.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials blaming female victims of rape for being promiscuous is still a sad reality in isolated cases in the United States today.  State police brutality directed at black youths and disparities in our justice system based on race occur as well, but I do not believe that these instances reflect what America, its people, or its legal system stands for.  In the same vein, the rare instances where state mistreatment of individuals in specific instances in the UAE occur are terrible and should be discussed and rectified, but also do not reflect the overall values of the society as a whole.

LGBT

The position of the LGBT community in Dubai shows a society that is in transition and that is struggling with the interplay between social reality, the legal system and the conservative religious background of the region.  There are anti-sodomy laws on the books in the federal UAE code and in the individual Emirates, yet there is an active LGBT community in the country living out their normal lives free from intrusion.  This is not to say that the government condones homosexuality–it does not– but private behavior between consenting adults is not subject to inspection or interference from authorities.

In general, the UAE is a conservative society and public displays of affection are illegal, although these laws are rarely enforced.  As Chip mentions in Something Worth Saying, these laws are in effect for everyone, regardless of nationality, sex or gender.  As a sovereign nation, I believe that the UAE should be free to decide that public displays of affection are not something they want to condone, as long as the law is applied consistently to everyone when it is enforced.

As noted previously, the UAE operates under a federal legal system, with the individual Emirates making their own laws in certain areas of jurisdiction.  In Dubai,  there is no specific law against homosexuality, although there is an anti-sodomy law that applies equally to same sex and mixed sex couples and carries up to a 10-year jail sentence under Penal Code Article 177.

Having an anti-sodomy law in any form is of course troubling because of the disproportionate use against gay men and as a tool of discrimination.  Although it certainly does not excuse the laws in the UAE, we also continue to struggle with this in the United States as there are 12 states with anti-sodomy laws in their legal code similar to that in Dubai, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 that such laws are unconstitutional.  Sadly, Louisiana’s congress voted 66-27 in favor of maintaining the law on the books in that state in 2014.  Hopefully both the US and the UAE will continue to grow towards greater acceptance of all people.

When I read Chip’s article, I felt that his mention of “death”, “execution”, and “dead bodies” in relation to the UAE government’s stance on homosexuality was unnecessary and sensationalist, as his article itself mentions that Dubai does not have any such law or penalty and that no such penalty has ever been carried out in the greater UAE either.

In practice, there is an LGBT community in Dubai and the UAE with happy individuals living freely and openly, several are personal friends of mine and members of the Ultimate community.  All of us would like to see the anti-sodomy laws removed and the tolerance level increase, and thankfully it does appear that things are moving in that direction.

Wrapping up

Like the US, Dubai and the UAE still have work to do to achieve a fully fair and free society for everyone, including women and LGBT individuals. However, just reading the Rights Report does not give an accurate view of what life is actually like in Dubai for women or members of the LGBT community.  Something Worth Saying was a very well-written article, but to say that visitors to Dubai must “keep a low profile” and “pretend that everything is okay” in order to visit safely is simply misleading and not in line with the realities of life in Dubai. Most people I know do not lock their cars and some do not lock their homes.  The crime rate here is much lower than most cities in the world of a similar size and the majority of the people feel extremely safe.

While there is plenty of room for improvement, to make it seem like women are systematically treated as second-class citizens in the UAE also overstates the point and could be misinterpreted to improperly propagate a stereotyped bias of the people of this region.

I very much appreciated Chip asking some uncomfortable questions and raising these important issues for discussion. I hope that this article, even if coming from my very limited viewpoint, helps to shed some light on some of these issues from the perspective of someone in the ultimate community in Dubai.

I think I speak for the entire UAE Ultimate community when I say that the WCBU was a huge success!  We all hope to see many of you who visited for the WCBU return and, for those who could not make it, please come visit and throw some discs with us (just not in August)!

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