For years, authorities have turned a blind eye to the alcoholism that inevitably accompanies some 100,000 Brits living and working in the emirate.
But there are signs that the indigenous Arab community, who now make up only 15 per cent of the total population, could be beginning to demand an end to an open-door policy for Westerners.
Reader’s letters in English-language newspapers such as The National and 7Days have said that “social depravity” brought in by expatriate workers threaten to undermine Islamic values.
The row erupted after sales manager Michelle Palmer, 30, was stopped by a policeman for allegedly having sex on Jumeirah beach two weeks ago with Vince Acors, 34 – a man she met only that night.
According to reports, Palmer was said to have ignored an earlier polite warning from the officer, thrown her shoe at his face and cursed Islam.
The incident was said to have occurred after an eight-hour champagne brunch and the couple were heavily inebriated.
Colleagues at business publisher ITP told this newspaper that Palmer, who had been in the UAE for three and a half years, should’ve known better.
“Palmer's case is a good microcosm of some of the worst behaviour being conducted by the present generation of 'culturally incompatible' Western expatriates and tourists,” said Dr. Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University who has lived in the UAE and recently published a book on Dubai .
“In recent years these have come to Dubai in their thousands and now massively outnumber the more robust and 'culturally aware' expatriates of bygone days. The new breed has flocked to the increasingly secular and liberal – and therefore increasingly attractive – environment provided and tolerated by the Dubai authorities.”
Sex before marriage in illegal in the UAE, as is being drunk in public, but for years authorities in Dubai have let westerners off with verbal warnings rather than prosecute.
This has led many to accuse the government of ignoring Islamic values at the expense of attracting tourism and skilled labour from abroad.
“A Muslim country is totally different from the West,” one Emerati Arab wrote in The National. “We want to be able to take our wives and children to the beach and not see such things. If we do nothing, if we give our finger they will take our hand.”
Ms. Palmer’s case has in many ways brought simmering cultural tensions to the surface. The British security service, MI5 recently posted on its website a warning that it is likely that a terrorist attack in the UAE was imminent. Many have put this down to the overwhelming number of western expatriates living in the booming emirate.
“In some ways there have already been backlashes,” said Dr. Davidson. “Two of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE nationals, and hundreds of the 'volunteer soldiers' found alongside the Taliban in late 2001 were UAE nationals.
“Undoubtedly there are strong misgivings over among more conservative elements of the national population and disaffected and radicalized individuals or small groups could pose a future security threat.
“The authorities in most parts of the Gulf observe the fine line between preserving Islamic values and providing an attractive environment for much needed foreign investors and tourists. The UAE also observes this fine line for the most part, but the emirate of Dubai is something of an exception.
“It has furiously diversified its economy following declining oil reserves in the 1990s, and thus far, has put the liberalizing needs of this post-oil diversification above all else. To make matters worse, it also lacks any credible consultative chamber, which even neighbouring emirates of Sharjah and Abu Dhabi have. Thus, there is no real outlet for grievances or frustration.”
The maximum punishment that Ms. Palmer could face is six years in jail. She is said to have been advised to marry Mr. Acors, who was on holiday in Dubai at the time, in order to reduce her sentence to two years.
It is believed that, owing to the massive public attention her case has received, authorities in Dubai will be forced to enforce the maximum sentence in order to escape censure from the Arab Muslim community.
Ms. Palmer was expected to appear before a Dubai court this week pleading not guilty to the charges. She has only released one statement since her arrest, made to reporters from the Sun newspaper in the UK .
“They’re going to make an example of us and we’re going to get a higher sentence,” she was quoted as saying. “We are in so much trouble and my family and everybody are affected. They are being pushed into a corner to make an example of us.”
This opinion was corroborated by Tony Maalouli, an attorney at Dubai-based ProConsult Advocates & Legal Consultants.
“I think that the authorities will simply decide to make an example out of her,” he said. She will be prosecuted by a Muslim Public Prosecutor, and thereafter tried and sentenced by a Muslim court, who will apply UAE laws, which are quite strict. This is particularly when the case involves an assault on public officers and an offence to Islam, which is the state religion and the main source of legislation according to the UAE constitution.
“I believe that westerners, and mostly tourists, see the glittering image of Dubai in the media and tend to forget that after all, this is a Muslim country,” he added. It maybe more tolerant than other Muslim countries, but is still attached to a set of moral conservative standards coded in its laws.
“People have to understand that the act of kissing in Public considered normal by today's European standards is considered as a criminal offence according to UAE laws and customs. Of course the authorities in Dubai tend to be more tolerant than the other emirates in the interpretation and application of the laws but these laws are still in place and they can act upon them whenever the lines are crossed.”