A Dubai judge on Thursday ordered a British couple jailed for three months for engaging in sex on a public beach this summer.
Judge Hamdi Mustafa Abu el-Khair sentenced Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors to three months in jail, a fine of $350 and deportation from Dubai after serving their sentence. The two defendants were not in court to hear the verdict their lawyer on Thursday vowed to appeal.
The clash of cultures between residents and the foreigners who flock here to work and play came to a head in the trial of Palmer and Acors, who were accused of having intercourse in public after meeting hours earlier at an all-you-can-drink champagne brunch.
Palmer and Acors were arrested in July and later charged with sex outside marriage, public indecency and drunkenness.
Although Dubai sells itself as a party hot spot, its Arab population hews to conservative Muslim values.
"These are testing times for Dubai, a sunshine state where everything always goes right," said Christopher Davidson, a Dubai specialist at Britain's Durham University.
'Las Vegas of the Middle East'
Dubai has been called the Las Vegas of the Middle East, with its carefully cultivated image as an oasis of liberal entertainment set amid an expanse of conservative countries like Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis ban alcohol and require even foreign women to wear enveloping black robes in public. In contrast, alcohol flows freely in Dubai's hotels and women can wear bikinis on city beaches.
But what most foreigners don't know — and what the government is not advertising — is that beneath the liberal facade is a legal culture based on Islamic laws and tribal rules that looks a lot more like Riyadh than Las Vegas.
While the laws are not always enforced, it is illegal for couples in Dubai to hold hands, hug or kiss in public — much less have sex on the beach.
"On affection in public, the law is clear and very strict," said Khalifa al-Shaali, dean of the law faculty at the University of Ajman, in Dubai's neighboring emirate. "Sex in public is an illegal act."
Palmer and Acors were arrested in July after an unidentified resident reported them to the police for indecent behavior. After a night in jail, they were freed but banned from leaving the country until a court determined their fate.
Both admitted they were drunk but denied having sex.
Palmer, who has worked in Dubai's publishing industry for several years, was fired from her job after her arrest. She has received more media attention than Acors, who was on vacation when he met her.
Dubai's indigenous population has long demanded that the government act to preserve their religious values and small-town traditions. Emiratis account for only 15 percent to 20 percent of a population dominated by Asian migrant workers, Western ex-pats and tourists.
"They (Emiratis) are not anti anybody, but the situation is pushing people to become kind of angry," said Ebtisam al-Kitbi, a Dubai native who teaches political science at Emirates University in Al Ain.
Many natives fear the city's culture is increasingly tipping in favor of foreigners, al-Kitbi said.
Some Emiratis have turned to radio call-in programs and Internet blogs to vent about how they no longer feel at home in their own country.
In response, the government has stepped up its efforts. A few days after Palmer and Acors were arrested, police detained dozens of people, mostly tourists, for topless sunbathing, nudity and other acts deemed indecent. It also has tightened immigration rules, visa policies and work permits.
But Dubai's leaders also say they are going ahead with plans for growth — plans that will keep the city on the cultural front line.
"They talk about a clash of civilizations. You can find it here," said al-Kitbi.