Middle East Bureau
ABU DHABI–It happened in Dubai.
The date – July 5, 2008, sometime around midday. The precise location – a not very private spot on Jumeirah Beach.
The act in question – well, it goes by different names.
Some might call it love. Some might use a different term.
Michelle Palmer no doubt thinks of it as a whopping big mistake.
She is a 30-something British resident of Dubai who topped off a somewhat liquid brunch at a five-star hotel that day by wandering onto the beach along with a British tourist who has so far been publicly identified only as “Vince.”
A local police officer found the pair kissing in broad daylight, and he politely issued them both with a warning. They should have listened.
Instead, the officer returned a little later to find the couple engaged in amatory activity of a considerably more vigorous nature.
For Palmer, the day ended in a police cell. Charged with public indecency, she faces up to six years in a Middle Eastern jail.
“It’s bad,” she told a London tabloid, The Sun. “It’s so, so bad.”
Yes, it is. But this is not the only point. The fact is that it happened in Dubai. It is almost impossible to imagine a similarly flagrant transgression against public morality occurring here in rich but proper Abu Dhabi – obviously not by Abu Dhabians themselves but not by foreigners, either.
“Dubai is very secular,” said a local journalist. “The religion in Dubai is capitalism. Here, there are still values in the culture that are very Islamic.”
At first glance, the neighbouring emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are notable far more for their similarities than for their differences. Both are youthful cities overlooking the Persian Gulf from low, sandy perches on or near the Arabian Peninsula. Both are extremely wealthy. Both are governed by the members of a powerful ruling clan – the al Nahyan family in Abu Dhabi, the al Maktum family in Dubai.
The two cities are only about 90 minutes apart by car, connected by an excellent four-lane highway that cuts through the desert on a path as straight as a falcon in flight.
During July and August, both cities are all but unbearably hot, with day-time temperatures approaching 50C. In both cities, the price of gasoline is uniformly low – about $20 to fill the tank of a typical SUV.
But Dubai and Abu Dhabi are different nonetheless.
For one thing, Abu Dhabi has oil – immense amounts of it, enough to produce 2.5 million barrels a day for another 100 years or so.
By contrast, only about 6 per cent of Dubai’s economy is directly dependent on petroleum.
Dubai has been aggressively preparing for a future without oil: building office towers, condominiums and tourist facilities at a furious pace, while courting foreign investment with generous incentives.
A magnet for well-heeled foreigners, Dubai seems increasingly favoured – or saddled – with a reputation for racy nightlife and a corresponding array of vices, not excluding an occasional act of public indecency. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has developed at a considerably more measured pace, and the main reason is simple – His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan wanted it that way.
Sheikh Zayed was the founder of the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital. Although stupendously wealthy, he lived a reasonably modest life, fathering 19 sons and an unknown quantity of daughters, while taking a keen interest in the preservation of the natural environment.
“Sheikh Zayed wanted to keep this place quiet,” said Pam Simmons, a Canadian who lives in Abu Dhabi.
For many years, he did just that. Abu Dhabi grew – no doubt about it – but its growth was sedate.
“We used to make trips to Dubai,” said Tamara Trinka, an expatriate real estate agent in Abu Dhabi, “because there was nothing here.”
Nowadays, that is changing.
The patriarch died in 2004, and the two sons who replaced him at the helm of the al Nahyan clan have taken a far more dynamic approach to Abu Dhabi’s economic development, budgeting $200 billion in new economic investment over the next 10 years alone.
Abu Dhabi’s population is expected to double during that time.
Dubai remains a going concern – a booming desert metropolis that has seemingly all but cornered the market for construction cranes.
Lately, however, Abu Dhabi has been sprouting an impressive quantity of construction cranes of its own, along with an ever-growing supply of new buildings.
But there is still a difference.
The landmark building in Dubai is a hotel – the Burj al Arab, built to resemble a massive sail soaring above the sandy coastline.
The most talked-about new building in Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is a mosque, among the largest in the world – a gorgeous and gleaming conglomeration of marble domes, minarets and arches, dedicated to the memory of Sheikh Zayed.
These two very different kinds of buildings seem to sum up the many distinctions that continue to separate the still rather decorous atmosphere of Abu Dhabi from its more raucous cousin up the coast.
On the other hand, Abu Dhabi has won a place on the Formula One car-racing circuit, with its first Grand Prix scheduled to be run next year.
Can raunchy Britons be far behind?