The United Arab Emirates has ambitions of being the New York City of the Middle East. Dubai already boasts the world’s tallest building, the first indoor ski resort, the world’s largest manmade island and upscale shopping malls that dwarf Super Wal Marts. Brad Pitt is even designing an eco-friendly hotel, one project in Dubai’s $381 billion worth of new construction.
Abu Dhabi, UAE’s capital, has designs on becoming a cultural center that rivals Paris. Pumping nearly 3 million barrels of oil a day at $120 a barrel, the city has the money to recruit the finest architects and museum curators in the world.
Abu Dhabi will soon feature its version of Paris’ Louvre. Frank Gehry is designing a Guggenheim Museum. The Cleveland Clinic is building an outpost and New York University is constructing a campus.
Unfortunately, the gleaming skyscrapers and glitzy marketing can mask the harsh reality that the UAE still has medieval laws. While it has all the trappings of a modern nation, it is a place where one can be entrapped and imprisoned simply for being gay.
The UAE’s stark contradictions came to the fore last year when Alexandre Robert, a 15 year old French boy, was gang raped with one of the assailants being HIV+. The government tried to cover up the crime and even threatened to convict Alexandre of homosexuality. The case caused an international uproar and strained relations between France and the UAE.
The spectacular rise of Dubai and Abu Dhabi raises several interesting questions. Can a city that looks economically forward remain culturally backward and still thrive? How can Abu Dhabi become a leading cultural center when openly gay people are such an integral part of such institutions? What will happen when a gay-themed play or art exhibit is proposed for one of their new theatres or museums?
From what I understand, gay life thrives in Dubai if one knows the right people and keeps a low profile. Unofficial gay nights are tolerated in Western hotels as long as no one actually acknowledges what is going on. (Sounds like the Republican Party)
As the cultural centers of the UAE expand, there will be gay couples who rightfully refuse to pretend they are just good buddies. When this occurs, how will the government respond? If they crack down, will Western corporations withdrawal their investments or will they tell the gay people to go back into the closet?
In the age of globalization these are important questions. They not only affect gay people, but women, immigrants and other minorities. It is one thing to suffer discrimination at the hands of developing nations, such as Poland, Jamaica or Myanmar. But, quite another to have futuristic cities of the 21st Century become "No Gay Zones" or treat women like pets.
A US News & World Report cover story says that in Dubai there are swimming pools that offer ladies-only hours and the beaches are mixed with western women in bikinis and locals with full-length abayas. What will happen when some of these women rebel and decide bikinis are more comfortable in 110-degree weather?
The most important question is whether the rapid economic change is a harbinger for political and social transformation? US News & World Report does point out that labor protests, which were once rare, "are becoming more common." Such unrest could lead to changes in other areas and foster greater democracy. However, there is some fear that too much change on social issues could lead to a violent backlash from Islamic fundamentalists.
The worry about modern states suppressing basic human rights isn’t confined to the UAE. Amnesty International’s annual report said that people are tortured or abused in at least 81 countries, face unfair trials in at least 54 countries and are not allowed to express themselves freely in at least 77 nations.
Amnesty International said its report "reveals a world riven by inequality, scarred by discrimination and distorted by political repression."
China is another example of a quickly modernizing nation that lags on gay rights and other social issues. With the Olympics around the corner, the world will be watching China as closely as it watches its citizens. What concerns me is that misapplied technology has made it easier for governments to spy than for citizens to organize. This creates an environment where it is infinitely more difficult to start new movements that challenge the status quo.
The UAE has a unique opportunity to transform the Middle East. However, a country can spend all the money in the world on impressively molded concrete, steel and glass and still fail to be a modern nation. Democracy, intellectual freedom and human rights are the true building blocks for the future. For gay people and other minorities, all that glitters is still not gold in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.