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New rules for Dubai seek to tame foreigners

In its latest struggle to tame public behavior in this glitzy Gulf city state that sells itself as a place where the modest Middle East meets the wild West, Dubai has set up new behavior guidelines.
Dubai Indecent Behavior
Dubai has put up signs like this one at shopping malls where foreigners and locals are likely to run into one another. But when the signs didn't appear to change habits, Dubai came up with a list of more specific dos and don'ts.Kamran Jebreili / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A peck on the cheek in public? Probably OK. Steamy embrace? Get a room.

That's the message coming from Dubai authorities in their latest struggle to tame public behavior in this glitzy Gulf city state that sells itself as a place where the Middle East meets the wild West.

Dubai announced the new behavior guidelines over the weekend in the local media, though it remains unclear if they will become law.

The instructions — touching on topics from miniskirts to angry outbursts — could sharpen existing "suggestions" for modest dress and decorum and give police more leeway for fines or arrests in places such as beaches and malls.

But the possible curbs also dig deeper into Dubai's bipolar personality, which caters heavily to Western tastes and lifestyles for its international allure, but is still governed by rulers with traditional and conservative Gulf sensibilities.

"Dubai has been walking a fine line by being all things to all people," said Valerie Grove, a culture and art blogger based in neighboring Sharjah emirate. "Concerns over Dubai's image are split between its Western-style economy, that includes tourism, and regional norms of conservative culture."

If approved and enforced, the restrictions could deal another blow to Dubai's carefully manicured image as an easygoing oasis amid the Gulf's more frowning codes.

Dubai's cultural fault lines were exposed last year, after a British couple was convicted for having sex on a beach, and later fined and deported after their prison sentence was suspended.

The outlines of the possible new restrictions first appeared in Al Emarat al Youm, an Arabic-language newspaper with close ties to Dubai's ruling family.

The list goes on
Dancing and playing loud music in public will be banned. Couples kissing, holding hands or hugging could face fines or detention.

Miniskirts and skimpy shorts would no longer be tolerated outside hotels and other private areas. Bikini wearers also could be chased off public beaches and only allowed on the fenced-off sands of luxury resorts.

Other no-nos: drinking alcohol outside licensed premises or swearing and displaying rude gestures in public, the newspaper said.

Repeated attempts by The Associated Press to reach Dubai officials to comment on the new guidelines and respond to questions about possible fines, jail sentences or when the measures could take effect, were unsuccessful.

Authorities here often announce policy changes in local media instead of going through an official decree that government spokesmen could explain.

Whatever the fate of the proposed instructions, it's highly unlikely any crackdown could spill over to Dubai's many resorts and nightclubs, where booze flows freely and the attire is the same as any tropical vacation spot.

Focus on mega-malls
For now, the rules appear aimed at one of Dubai's main tourist draws: the mega-malls that serve as full-service entertainment hubs and where already, signs encourage shoppers to respect local customs and keep hem lines sensible and T-shirts from getting too skimpy.

The signs were mostly ignored without any serious fallout. The new rules could reflect authorities finally pushing back.

The front-page newspaper story said Dubai's Executive Office, which directs the emirate's ambitious development plans, issued the guidelines for "all citizens, residents and visitors ... while in the emirate ... to respect its culture and values."

According to the daily, "pants and skirts are to be of an appropriate length" and "clothing cannot be tight or transparent" with visible body parts. On the beaches "appropriate swimwear, acceptable to the culture of the society and its values" must be worn.

Dubai's indigenous population fears the city's culture is tipping in favor of foreigners. Emiratis account to up to 20 percent of a population dominated by Asian migrant workers, Western expats and sun-seeking tourists.

Some local leaders have demanded the government act to preserve religious values and tribal traditions.

After the sex-on-the-beach trial, the prominent Jumeirah Group five-star hotel chain issued an advisory for Western tourists.

It cautioned guests that drunken behavior in public is punished severely and recommended tourists be discreet with public displays of affection.

Anything more than a "peck on the cheek could offend those around you and even possibly lead to police involvement," the advisory said.