A kiss, a hug or holding hands — acts of fondness by same sex couples in public have always been out of the question in the United Arab Emirates.
Behind closed doors, it has been a different affair for members of the international LGBTQ community .
“Much of the Dubaian gay nightlife takes place in venues within the city’s copious international hotels, which are technically open to all who can afford them,” Ryan Centner, a professor of urban geography at the London School of Economics, concluded after six years of field research among gay expatriates in the UAE.
“Not a single venue’s webpage uses the word ‘gay’ or related euphemisms, nor do they hint at targeting a gay crowd,” he said in an interview on the school’s website.
Information on the website Travelgay.com concurs. Dubai-based lawyer Matthew, originally from the UK, found that though there were no official gay clubs, “they’re usually known through social media or word of mouth, although they’re never advertised [as gay clubs],” he told the website in an anonymous interview.
In Matthew’s experience, staying under the radar has worked out for the LGTBQ community since “the Emirates are very private, and respect of that privacy is paramount.”
All of this is despite the fact that the UAE’s penal code lays out punishments for “any flagrant indecent act.” Often this means homosexuality.
According to Article 358, any saying or act that offends public morals can see the perpetrator fined up to 50,000 dirhams ($13,000) or even imprisoned.
However the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA, which represents more than 1,700 organizations from over 160 countries, reports that only 21 people in the UAE were prosecuted for this between 2004 and 2021.
All of this is why much of the international LGBTQ community trusted that, as long as they kept a low profile, they could rely on authorities turning a blind eye.
Whether that can continue remains to be seen. Recently the UAE and other neighboring countries have announced various measures that may indicate an even stricter approach to the LGBTQ community.
Saudi Arabia banned rainbow-coloured products earlier this month, Lebanon saw the authorities take action against events during Pride Month and Qatar, now in the spotlight because it is hosting the upcoming World Cup in soccer, has been caught up in a debate about rainbow flags and how to host queer couples in local hotels.
One of the most recent moves was by the UAE’s Ministry of Education which approved an updated code of conduct for education professionals during the first week of September. One of the tenets in the new framework explicitly prohibits “discussing gender identity, homosexuality or any other behavior deemed unacceptable to the UAE’s society” in class.
Undoubtedly this will affect foreigners in the country who work as English language teachers.
It is the first time, the code of conduct has used such language and DW asked the Ministry of Education as to whether this was part of a new crackdown on the LGBTQ community, but had not recieved an answer at the time of writing.
For Radha Stirling, head of the UK-based law firm, Detained in Dubai, specializing in UAE law, this is nothing new. “It is not, and should not be, surprising that the UAE prohibits the teaching of a lifestyle that is itself prohibited by law,” she told DW. “The UAE is interested in liberalization in certain areas but they have to weigh this against public opinions and they cannot tolerate actions that incite a backlash,” she said.
In fact, local opinion is a large part of the reason behind the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ measures in the region, Mostafa Minawi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Ottoman history at Cornell University in the US, told DW.
There is a pattern emerging behind the “coordinated effort in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon and also Turkey, who are all about cracking down on the symbolism of any LGBTQ existence in public, such as the rainbow flag,” he told DW.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been reframing their relationship with Israel, which is highly unpopular with some parts of the population,” he argued. “So what better method is there to send a message to the local population that they are still holding on to their traditions?”
Local LGBTQ populations are political scapegoats, he said. “This time it is not women, and not migrant workers [that are being scapegoated] because they are in the spotlight of human rights organizations due to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar,” Minawi added.
The laws may appear to target local LGBTQ community members but none of this is good news for internationals in the UAE either.
According to the latest update of the global equality index, Equaldex, the UAE is ranked at 5 out of 100 points, with zero points being the worst.
“The UAE continues to be one of the most dangerous places for LGBTQ people and tourists,” Dan Leveille, head of Equaldex, told DW. And he isn’t hopeful that this will change any time soon.
“Earlier this year, we’ve seen the UAE ban the [Disney] film Lightyear for a same-sex kiss. Anti-gay sentiments remain high and I haven’t seen any data that shows the sentiments are improving.”
By Jennifer Holleis