Bikini troubles in Dubai

Women face harassment and groping on Dubai's beaches. Will a police crackdown solve the problem?

Published November 13, 2006 7:29PM (EST)

Dubai is an emirate under construction; it's been called the fastest-growing urban area on Earth, and is currently home to around 20 percent of the world's cranes as well as a booming economy, including an estimated 500,000 foreign workers. "Spending for present and future buildings is said to be a mind-boggling $100 billion," CNN reported this weekend. The so-called city of gold is positioning itself as party central, with massive projects like the world's first underwater hotel, the world's tallest building (also a hotel, the sail-shaped Burj Dubai) and the construction of an island shaped like a palm tree.

This rapid, tourism-focused development is somewhat at odds with the UAE's customs and laws. While women enjoy a fairly high degree of autonomy and participation in public life, alcohol consumption and public displays of affection are regulated, modest dress is encouraged and non-Emirati residents don't have the opportunity for any kind of naturalization or permanent residence. Reports of human-rights and workers'-rights violations have been widely circulated; incoming workers are often forced to relinquish their passports upon arrival, and NPR reported earlier this year that "some workers say they haven't been home in years and that their salary has been withheld to pay back loans."

Sunday's New York Times reported on a new locus of cultural conflict: the beach. For the country's foreign workers, "most from the Indian subcontinent, the chance to spot a woman in a bikini may be hard to pass up," Times writer Hassan Fattah observes. Consequently, the country is grappling with the problem of "beach pests," who "leer at women, photograph them and occasionally try to grope them in the water."

This phenomenon sounds oppressive and gross. Dubai's police are cracking down on beach pests -- the Times reports that officers have arrested more than 500 men suspected of leering at the beach, and some offenders have had their photos deleted or been barred from the beach -- and that's welcome news. But the country's labor problems complicate the story somewhat. In a country that systematically marginalizes its non-native workforce, it seems awfully easy to blame the workers for social problems. The definitions of what constitutes waterfront harassment seem vague and potentially open to abuse; the director of Dubai's criminal-investigation department told Fattah that "we can easily spot people who are not there for the beach. We'll be watching and if we see anything we will be getting involved." (The criminal-investigation director did say he's committed to treating "ignorant" offenders with respect.) Fattah also notes that most of those arrested were cited for immigration violations. None of this is to say that anyone should get a free pass to harass or grope women. But if Dubai is coping with an uncomfortable clash of cultures, it would seem to be in the emirate's interest to address the cultural issues -- through outreach, public education or otherwise encouraging better social integration for workers -- as well as the law-enforcement issues. Of course, if Dubai wanted better integration, its social landscape would likely already look very different. But in this context the "beach pest" phenomenon seems more like a symptom of the emirate's problems than the cause.

For more uplifting UAE news, check out Fattah's Saturday profile of Sheika Lubna al-Qassimi, the emirates' minister of economy and commerce and the first female minister, period. "Every day and night, I think about how the girls need to change. Ultimately, I am out there for them," she told Fattah.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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