British expatraites in Dubai continued to party away this weekend – despite last week’s stern reminder from the kingdom’s rulers that Sex on the Beach should remain restricted to the cocktail menu.
A week after the arrest of British saleswoman Michelle Palmer for an alleged drunken tryste on the shores of the Persian Gulf, fellow expats appeared to have lost little enthusiasm for the work-hard, play-hard lifestyle for which the Emirate has become famous.
In the Double Decker, a packed London bus-themed pub near the soaring tower of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel, Simone Dobson nursed a vodka and orange that was possibly not her first of the day.
Yet she said that as long as revellers did not test the authorities’ liberal attitudes too much, the worst that could happen after a night’s carousing was a hangover.
“Both the work and social life are brilliant here,” said the 36-year-old management consultant, as a middle-aged businessman drunkenly murdered the Beatles’ Twist and Shout on the karoake.
“But I’m afraid anyone who did that kind of thing would be really stupid. You are in a Muslim country and you must respect their laws. If you’re going to drink, you don’t wander the streets afterwards – you get in a taxi and go straight home.”
The perils of ignoring that advice have been starkly demonstrated by the case of Ms Palmer, 36, who was arrested on Dubai’s Jumeirah beach along with British mobile phone executive Vince Acors, 34, following a drinking spree of the sort with which many in the Double Decker might well be familiar. Charges have yet to be confirmed, but if they are brought – and if she is found guilty – she could face up to six years’ jail for her alleged sexual affair, drunken behaviour, and assault on the officer who tried to arrest her.
This weekend Ms Palmer’s parents are understood to have flown to Dubai to support their daughter, whose lawyers are believed to be lobbying the desert kingdom’s prosecutors to show leniency rather than making an example. Less sympathetic, however, were her fellow expats, for whom the Emirate’s tough attitude to yobbishness – along with its year-round sunshine and home comforts like IKEA – is just one of the many good reasons why 100,000 Britons now live here.
“I’m sorry, but if someone does something like that they’re a silly moo,” said Stuart Frost, 42, a legal executive sunbathing on the strip of public beach where Ms Palmer was arrested. “If you have been here for three years, you should know how to behave. And if you assault a police officer in any country you are in trouble, not just here.”
Not all of Dubai’s do’s and don’ts are that straightforward, however.
Offering bars and alcohol as well as high tax-free salaries has certainly helped attract the foreign workforce, who have helped build its gleaming skyscrapers and turn it into the Middle East’s answer to Hong Kong. Yet among the indigenous Muslim population – now outnumbered by guest workers by nearly 10 to one – it has also provoked a debate about erosion of public morality – not dissimilar to that currently raging in Britain.
The result is a hybrid of liberal and illiberal rules. Wearing a bikini on the beach is fine, but walking the street while drunk can get you arrested, as can flicking a V-sign. Alcohol is tolerated and pork is on sale, yet the merest trace of cannabis in the bloodstream carries a stiff jail sentence. Pop stars like Elton John gig here, but satellite television showing homosexuality is banned, and Dubai’s thriving clubs and bars are unlikely ever to offer gay nights.
“Dubai is by far the most liberal place in the Gulf region,” said Omar Hadi, an English-educated businessman of Iraqi descent. “However, there is a cultural identity that they want to keep, and some of the stricter laws reflect that.”
Yet for all the talk of how the case has highlighted the tensions between the country’s Muslim monarchy and the hedonistic tendencies of its well-paid Western workers, one new cultural phenomenon may probably be more to blame than any other. It is “the brunch”, or, as Dubai’s expats know it, “brunching”.
Around noon every Friday, as Dubai’s teetotal Muslims take the day off for prayers, the expats make an equally ritual pilgrimage to various hotels offering cheap all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffets. But while it has now become something of a local institution, an all-day drinking marathon in the 40C heat offers considerably more chance of getting out of control than a Saturday night out back home.
“Brunch can get very messy,” admitted Hayley Monaghan, 23, from Liverpool, working in Dubai as a hostess for a local airline, one of many well-groomed young women heading into the Double Decker on Friday, where the advertised “brunch” lasts from midday right through to 3am. “You can get all you want to eat and drink for 150 dirhams, which is only about £20.”
Indeed, it was a champagne “brunchathon” at Dubai’s Airport Meridien Hotel that allegedly proved Ms Palmer’s undoing nine days ago, and which has prompted local police to announce special “brunch patrols” aimed at curbing the excesses.
Yet on Friday it seemed to be business as usual at the Meridien: groups of smartly-dressed revellers milled around in varying stages of drunkenness after gorging themselves on lobster and bubbly buffet, and lying prone on the dancefloor, a drunken couple gyrated vertically to the sounds of Don MacLean’s American Pie. It was only 6pm.
“I didn’t think really think it would be like this out here,” said recruitment agent James Penn, before The Sunday Telegraph was bundled out by the hotel’s nervous Indian manager. “But I did have friends who said you would see more drunk people out here than in Britain.”
Whether Dubai’s authorities now feel the need to send out a message about that trend will probably be shown in any sentence given to Ms Palmer, if she is found guilty. She is expected to face a judge in coming weeks. Yet even the briefest of jail time will be grim, according to one local expat, who served the mandatory month for drink driving. Typically for Dubai, the prison he ended up in had just been built and was relatively comfortable. But that did not prevent it being “a terrible shock to the system,” he said. “I woke up hungover in a cell, thinking ‘Christ, am I going to get raped by some big guy named Abdul?’. They also put you in a prison uniform and shave your head – you feel like a lab rat.”
Worst of all, though, was the “disgusting” prison diet of chicken and rice, and the limit of just three 10-minute cigarette breaks a day. Should Ms Palmer follow in his footsteps, all-day brunch may never have seemed further away.