Michelle Palmer levde det gode liv blant utlendingene i Dubai, som utgjør 80 prosent av befolkningen, nok til å sette sitt preg på byen. Men det var en falsk trygghet. Dubai er stolt av sine emirat-verdier, og nå har en reaksjon meldt seg: de vil gjerne sette ned foten. Den traff Palmer.
Hun hadde truffet en mann. De var forelsket og gikk på stranden og viste sine følelser. Det var kanskje det som var det mest provoserende: at de viste følelser for hverandre offentlig. Politiet kom. De ble arrestert. Det ble sagt at de hadde gjennomført samleie på stranden. Alt var løgn. Hennes liv er knust. Hun venter bare på dommen. De kan bli på seks års fengsel.
Before her arrest on July 5, Palmer was a successful associate manager for ITP, a Middle Eastern publishing house. By all accounts she loved her job, and loved her life in Dubai, with its year-round sunshine, sandy beaches and tax-free living. Her friends describe her as warm and carefree with a sharp wit. But on Tuesday she told another story: «I have lost everything there is to lose,» she said, sitting in the immaculate, marble courthouse where her fate will ultimately be decided.
Since her arrest, she says she has been treated like a pariah. She was sacked from her job. Some of the co-workers whom she once considered friends have spoken of her disparagingly in the press, likening her to a pathetic incarnation of Bridget Jones.
Here in Dubai, public opinion has come down sharply against her: expatriates and Emiratis alike believe that she should have respected local laws. But all of that, Palmer indicated yesterday, is based on the false assumption that she is guilty. «Ninety per cent of what has been reported is untrue,» she told me in court yesterday.
One source familiar with the case says: «The result will have far-reaching effects, because it has become a symbol of the basic contradiction of life here.» Under the rule of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Dubai has embarked on an ambitious and successful quest to become the Middle East’s centre for trade and tourism: many Westerners, including the Beckhams, have invested in property. But some of its laws, rooted in Sharia and tribal life, are clearly on a collision course with the values of some of the very people it seeks to attract. Public decency laws forbid everything from kissing in public to cross-dressing. There is zero tolerance for drugs or pornography. Homosexuality is banned. So is sex outside marriage.
For years, expats have found ways around these laws. Unmarried couples who live together falsify marriage certificates when needed. Those without an alcohol licence purchase liquor through friends. But the era of authorities turning a blind eye to these violations appears to be coming to an end.
With expats now accounting for more than 80 per cent of the population, there is an emerging effort on the part of the ruling authorities to assert «Emirati values». In a recent crackdown by Dubai’s decency police, hundreds of people were arrested over the summer on charges ranging from cross-dressing to topless sunbathing, all conducted under the motto: «Our social values are precious…let’s protect them.» Dubai’s most popular beaches, shopping malls and boozy Friday brunches – one-time havens for expat excess – have become the target of undercover police patrols. The country’s stance on drugs has also hardened. In the past 12 months, around 65 British nationals have been arrested in the UAE for drugs offences.
Det er en interessant konstellasjon: Dubai vil gjerne fremstå som en internasjonal magnet, men når presset blir for stort slår «bondeverdiene» tilbake. Men de kan ikke få i pose og sekk.