I wish I had a crisp 100 Dirham note for every time I’ve said the above.
When I first told friends, family, and acquaintances that I was marrying an Egyptian and moving to Dubai, there were mixed reactions. They varied from ‘Oh, Dubai – you lucky thing! I saw it on the telly the other night – it’s fantastic, isn’t it?’ to ‘Oh my God! Are you crazy?’
Whilst the answer to both questions is probably ‘yes’, I’d have thought that after more than 6 years in which I’ve travelled back to Ireland many times and told them all about the place, doubts and worries would have disappeared. In my family’s and closest friends’ cases, that is true. On the other hand, when I meet new people in the UK and Ireland, or talk to old friends elsewhere via e-mail, I invariably find myself repeating the mantra, ‘It’s not Saudi, you know.’
Most recently, a contact in France ended an otherwise cheery e-mail with, ‘Well, I’m sure you’re glad you can get away and travel to Ireland for your long holidays. I imagine it’s difficult living in a place where alcohol is banned and women have practically no rights. All the best …’
I had to pick my jaw up from the desk and go for a walk before I replied. It ran something like this:
Dear D – I don’t know where you got your info about the UAE from but please note, it’s not Saudi! Alcohol is available if you need it – the majority of hotels and restaurants serve it and tourists have no problem buying it. Residents must apply for a special licence in order to buy alcohol on a regular basis, but with the high salaries for Western ex-pats, which are of course tax-free, the cost of this is a drop in the ocean for most.
As for women’s rights – we have full rights here. There are no restrictions as far as education or work go – where I live in Ras Al Khaimah many of the female Emirati graduates work in banks and government offices and others teach or run their own businesses. Girls are outstripping boys in academic performance in the UAE as elsewhere and the average age for marriage is around 26/27.
The next e-mail I received said – ‘God, you’re right – I looked up Abu Dhabi on the web – what a great lifestyle you guys have!’
Last week, the Norway-based Global Network for Rights and Development issued their first International Human Rights Rank Indicator. The United Arab Emirates is ranked 14 out of 261 countries – ahead of Ireland, The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States. I don’t think any of us who live here are surprised, but apparently others were. When I visited the website I noted that the IHRRI had found it necessary to issue a Press Statement due to all the queries they’d had about the position of the UAE on the index.
In effect, they were justifying the UAE’s position by having to explain how the criteria for the index were assessed and how scores were calculated. It was interesting to note that they mention the USA, so I guessed that perhaps most of the ‘numerous addresses’ they received may have come from that country. The clarification includes the point that the USA scored low on ‘respect for human rights abroad’. The complete rankings, together with the full criteria for the index can be viewed here and here. I’m guessing there were no questions about Saudi Arabia’s position at number 206 on the list.
So will I now be able to abandon my mantra, ‘It’s not Saudi, you know’? Perhaps not yet. Not so long as the Western Press continues to indulge in what one Abu Dhabi Professor, Dr. Joel Hayward, describes as ‘Islam-bashing’. He recently won a libel case and ‘substantial damages’ against The Mail on Sunday in the UK for a 2011 article in which he was described as the ‘Ayatollah of the RAF’, accused of encouraging his students to take a ‘softly softly line’ when writing about Muslim terrorists. Dr. Hayward, a New Zealander by birth, took legal action in order to help ‘set the record straight’ and perhaps speed up the process of eradicating prejudice against Islam. The full story is in The National.
Personally, I see prejudices not simply against Islam, but also against Arab culture and most things from the East that appear to threaten the dominance of Western nations and their culture. We live in a diverse and changing world but unfortunately, the majority of people don’t have the chance to engage deeply with other cultures or belief systems. Sometimes, their only understanding of anything outside their comfort zone comes from biased reporting in a tabloid newspaper, which in essence, is designed to be sensationalist. The East, Arabia, and Islam are abstract notions to those who have never met or mixed with Arabs or Muslims, just as the mention of The United Arab Emirates conjures up images of repressed women and strict social rules where everything sacred to Western cultural norms is denied or forbidden.
I’m not Emirati but I’m proud to see my adopted homeland ranked so highly on the IHRRI list. I’m also confident that the UAE can be a shining example to other countries in The Gulf which do not measure up so well when their record on Human Rights is put under the microscope. I doubt very much if the publication of this Human Rights Index will mean I can abandon saying ‘It’s not Saudi, you know,’ but at least now I have something from Norway, ranked number 1 on the list, which backs me up. Maybe I’m not so crazy after all.