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April 04, 2005

Dubai, Dubai - The Scandal and The Vice

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

Dubai is a boomtown. It has also become a major centre for prostitution. "Dubai is the place where Arabs come to sin - the Bangkok of the Middle East". Vice, directly and indirectly, may account for over 30% of Dubai's economy. Yet this licence exists in a part of the world where the austere Saudi cult of Wahhabism is influential. William G. Ridgeway reports on the strange, uncomfortable meeting of Wahhabism and vice.

Dubai is the New York cum Las Vegas of Arabia, a dazzling conflagration of architectural absurdities and neon lights. It hums, buzzes, in much the same way a Manhattan street does – it is not just the noise, the constant roar of car horns, trucks and cries from the minarets, but the emotional throb of industry, business, fun. It is a young, happening place.

The city's architect is the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, a man individually rich beyond the dreams or comprehension of your average Arab. Imagine checking your balance at an ATM. Now imagine that for each pound you have on your balance slip, Sheikh Mohammed has ten million – you get the idea.

Dubai was never oil rich like the capital, Abu Dhabi, and had to rely on handouts to fund what started off as modest development. This economic dependency on Abu Dhabi was bad enough, but it undermined the autonomy of the spirited, cosmopolitan port - an unhappy arrangement, for Dubai anyway. The Dubai royal family thus hatched a radical plan to reduce economic and political dependency on their rich but staid cousins. The Big Idea was to make Dubai the regional hub for transport, communications, information, and above all, leisure. Dubai was to become New York cum Las Vegas.

Some plan. After two decades of hair-raising development, however, some argue that they have pulled it off. Huge projects such as Media City and Internet City, along with tax breaks for multinationals and massive construction projects, have meant that Dubai is now a sizeable economy in its own right. On the leisure front, the Maktoums subsidized the building of hundreds of hotels, many of them at the very top end of five star luxury. Sheikh Mohammed founded Godolphin, effectively a horseracing multinational company, which bought up the best bloodstock in the world, and brought Dubai to the attention of Europeans and Americans. In 1996 he founded the Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world, held annually at Nad al Sheba. The high point of this particular project from a PR and sporting perspective was when his favourite horse, the Godolphin-owned Dubai Millennium triumphed in 2000. The symbolism of this was not lost on observers around the world.

They founded Emirates airlines, a high quality line which has Dubai as its hub, and repeatedly wins awards for the world's best airline. Everybody wants to fly Emirates, if they can, and if they do, they will probably spend time and money in Dubai, if only in the famous Dubai Duty Free.

Recently, and controversially, Sheik Mohammed did something unthinkable in Arabia. He allowed foreigners to buy freehold property. This led to a huge property boom in the city. Realising that second-home buyers liked beaches, Mohammed thought big, and parted the sea itself with the construction of huge beach lined jetties and islands, notably The Palm, and more recently, The World. One can now buy a luxury four bedroom villa with access to one's own private beach in Iceland, Peru or Antarctica – all a mile off the coast of Dubai.

Many thought that 9/11 would be the end of Dubai; however, the city benefited hugely from it. Understandably, in the wake of their crimes, the Saudis pulled much of their huge investments out of a hostile America, but then faced the problem of where to put their money in an increasingly suspicious world. Saudi money thus poured into Dubai. As fast as they could build, the Saudis were buying. Every local IPO was massively oversubscribed, and shot through the roof after release onto the market. Middle Eastern troubles certainly caused a temporary dip in tourism, but they inadvertently pressed the overdrive on an already speeding Lamborghini.

Dubai is now at full speed – all the time. The streets are packed, businesses are booming. You have to book in advance for restaurants. Still the building continues, and still people are buying. Planes unload thousands of tourists a day, who squint in the sunshine and plan to visit the Burj al Arab, the world's tallest and most visionary hotel. They visit estate agents and wow at the prospect of living six months a year in this, the world's most dazzling, dynamic city. To top it all off, Sheikh Mohammed recently announced that he was building not merely outwards, but upwards, in the form of the world's highest building. The development of Dubai resembles the internet boom on amphetamines – but really it is like nothing else on earth.

Anything goes here. I mean anything. Dubai is the place where Arabs come to sin – the Bangkok of the Middle East. Sometimes unfrocking, sometimes not, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis, Egyptians, fly in daily like a plague of locusts, buzzing into the bars and discotheques of the city. To meet the huge demand for sex, in come planes from other directions, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, packed to the rafters with gum chewing women, anxious to profit from rich Arab punters. Emirates airlines recently opened a new route to Accra, Ghana. It now does good business ferrying African prostitutes back and forth to Dubai. The city thus profits from the transport of its own service workers. Here is a business model that works.

An economist recently informed me that vice, directly and indirectly, accounts for over 30% of Dubai's money-go-round. It is big business, and there in every bar in town. Naοve tourists are often amazed to see Saudis, pint in hand, whirling around makeshift dancefloors with Chinese prostitutes. Here on the sacred soils of Arabia, are Muslims, drinking, drugging and womanizing.

And here is the problem. Just next to Dubai, almost within hearing distance of the constant boom, boom, boom, lies Sharjah – a place that is relatively poor, pious and alcohol free. Here there is growing, ground level support for the austere Saudi cult of Wahhabism, which bans womanizing and urges the death penalty for women involved in it. (Women are routinely stoned, drowned or walled up in Saudi Arabia). Wahhabism bans alcohol and music. It does not like foreigners – infidel – on the sacred land of Arabia. For many Arabians - those not roistering in the Bangkok of the Middle East - Dubai is Sin City, and something has to be done about it.

Here lies the risk for Sheikh Mohammed. Had Dubai been a modest success, like say, Muscat, then it would not have mattered. People could have cast a blind eye to the bars in hotels. If only it had been more modest as a vice centre, like Manama in Bahrain, which due to its proximity to Saudi Arabia, was the more discreet Sin City for Saudis to get serviced, before it was usurped by Dubai. But Dubai now shines too brightly. Its effects on local culture are too pervasive. Wherever, Wahhabis turn, Dubai is in their face, challenging them, tempting them with secularism, success and sex.

There is thus a real risk that Dubai is indeed the new New York, and like New York – itself a symbol of brash materialism and licence - it too will be targeted by those in its shadow. The bubble shows little sign of bursting yet, though burst it might – literally – if Wahhabi extremists decide to do something evil and spectacular.

Walking around the streets of Dubai at night, or gazing down on the city from the cocktail lounge in Emirates Towers, one can't help think, however, that Sheikh Mohammed's project has reached the point beyond which it would survive adversity, as New York has done. Just like New York, it is a melting pot, a point on the globe where people meet, work hard and play hard. It has a soul, not altogether a spotlessly clean one, but a soul nevertheless. All it needs now is a bespectacled, immigrant from Iraq telling self-deprecating jokes about sex, and survival is guaranteed.
© retained by author 2005

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As a lifetime resident of Dubai I must completely disagree with the comparison between Dubai and New York, where, incidentally, I went to university. Dubai has a long long way to go before attaining a truly liberal political culture--the sex and money are just conspicuous consumption, an image being sold to the world. New York is not just liberal in its consumption habits but in its politics, and Dubai and the Emirates are yet to develop a political culture. And please, I hate stand-up comedy! What we need is serious reflection in all our languages, liberal arts colleges where people go to think about the world they live in, an intellectual culture that recognizes the idiocy of just making money and moves us towards a broad consensus on how to build a just, open society where human virtues can flourish. The true threat is always inside--and right now it is the temptation of bowing down before a disgusting american image of what modern life should be. And to assume that Sheikh Mohammed's agenda is actually the agenda of society in dubai is in itself a bizzare assumption, that men and women in dubai aren't conscious of themselves as people who live in the modern world in deeply troubled times. Don't let the brochures fool you!

Posted by: Haroun at August 13, 2005 08:39 AM

Haroun, you're an idiot

Posted by: JFW at August 18, 2005 07:15 PM

Actually, Haroun is correct, JFW (and thanks for your insightful comment... punk): Dubai does lack all those things. But it's a very young city. New York in its first _two centuries_ also lacked much of that; it's not really until the 1870s that it began to develop the kind of deep cultural infrastructure that Haroun so rightly points to. It'll come, in time. Remember that this is a city still very much figuring itself out.

Posted by: Not JFW at October 17, 2005 02:56 AM

Someone needed to tell it how it is - thank you.

Posted by: Karla Buchanan at October 19, 2005 10:23 AM

Can the writer credit the sources behind the allegedly 30% trade of UAE from vice-related stuff?

Posted by: John at November 21, 2005 04:19 PM

I lived in Abu Dhabi, a next door city for eighteen years, and I've been to America. Although I understand the comparison Ridgeway is trying to make, I'd have to disagree on some fronts at least.
There are harsh laws againt drugs and prostitution, and they're enforced. There was no mention on statistics or sources about the 30% income from illegal activities. And these things are also highly prevalent in large American cities.
Also, as Haroun mentioned, there really is no comparison if you look at the political environment. Its nowhere near anything like democracy. Far be it for me to say whether THAT will ever change.

Posted by: AK at November 26, 2005 11:38 PM

I've lived inAbu Dhabi for roughly 16 years now and I have to disagree from btis and pieces of the artlcle written above. I mean yes things in Dubai have been getting worse the ban on alcohol but prostitution has to be the most outrageous thing I've heard. In Dubai the prospect of having prostitues are slim to none. There are no women selling their "Services" on the streets no sexual calling cards nothing. Do not write articles on things you have not seen first hand. Look at a primary source visit the country first hand before making back door remarks.

Posted by: Sinan Mohatarem at January 7, 2006 02:56 AM


I totally disagree with the person who made this site. I personally think that they cannot compare Dubai with the filthy corrupted city like New York. There is no way on this planet that Dubai is 30% prostitution and drugs. Infact if one is caught with small posession he can face 8 years in person. On the other hand in USA they would set him to trial and trial would take years, then afterwards the person would not even be convincted. In Dubai u cant get away with murder but in USA they'll down grade it to manslaughter. Dubai is one of the top most richiest countires in the world, and it does not deserve to be compared to a ruggish state like New York. It looks likes a sinning place due to the amount of money it shows, and where everr there is a lot of money there is always a issue about sex and drugs. It is a social factor that lots of money means lots of pleasure time. But you cannot accusse Dubai to be like that. At least anything and everything that is ran here is on the down low. whatevr whenever we do, we don't brag about it!

Just a little background, I was born and raised in Canada, moved to dubai to teach english internationally. I am earning about $3,300 a month here with living expenses at about $600 including the partying. I am roughly saving $2000 cdn, in my bank account every month. MUCH MORE than any american or canadian would be saving! This is the biggest up point in the middle east, you can save more then you spend!

Posted by: Habz Daudi at January 7, 2006 01:02 PM

Hi All
The writer is right. I lived and still living in North America for along time,I visited Dubai 2003. I have never seen so mcuh sex as in Dubai. I have been in Amsterdam, which is the capital of sex. Amsterdam is more conservative than Dubai. In Amsterdam there is a red light district where you can see prostitutes, in Dubai prostitutes are everywhere even in residential areas.
According to Dubai statistics most of their GDP comes from tourism. more than 70 percent of the tourists come from the Gulf countries. Gulf countries citizens come only to sin. This make prostituition more than 30%..
Comparing it to New York is wrong. Sex is only little part of the GDP of New York, In Dubai it is sizable.


Posted by: Saad at January 26, 2006 05:24 PM

I would agree that the whole of the city has been turned into a brothel...I have witnessed the damn thing first hand a number of times on numerous who ever can't see the prostitutes in DUBAI needs to get their eyes and head examined... the Arabs are the most hypocritical nation in the world... preach something else and exhibit something else... I don't know what version Islam they are following...All their rules are for the poor working immigrants...

Posted by: Mysteryhunk at January 30, 2006 04:27 PM

i agree with others. everywhere in the world . there is always good things and bad things.even in shj itself ..some of them are in puiblic and some of them are in private. if you want to do good things, you can do it anywhere world, if you want to do bad things , also you can do.. its like what u desire, u will earn in these or tomorrow, thus, you cant judge on the outter lool because you went deeper enough to find about the funds.. helow, there are many poeple who are doing business here in dubai so that they earn money out of that therefore we build street and school for local and some which is the best, is that you guys never pay tax... and the best thing ever, you never ever fear anything when ever you go out. you always feel safe when you go out and this feelings you will never ever going to have even in the best cities in the world...

Posted by: Mahmoud Langwi at January 31, 2006 09:53 PM

I grew up and went to school in Dubai for 15 years. As an expat I've found the comunity and the locals exceptionally hospitable. It's quite an idylic country to grow up in and raise kids. However Dubai does have a major problem with prostitution (just ask any taxi driver for a girl at 3 in the morning and he will respond with a list of 20 nationalities you can choose from). But this is a completely unsuprising example of supply and demand within a male dominated work hard play hard culture and seemely keeps the number of rapes very low in comparison to Sharjah etc (Saudis don't have a particularly good record when it comes to this..just look at the number of child rapes Bahrain had when they opened their causeway to the Saudis!). An official study into this in such a benevolent dictatorship is next to impossible so don't bother asking for evidence, however I do feel local government should really be concerned about the spread of sexual diseases. ps. Any sane person in the UAE knows drugs are a no go subject and recreational pursuit!!

Posted by: mikey anderson at February 7, 2006 12:37 AM

How can some people be so blind about what's happening in Dubai. I've been there so many times and i'm absolutely sure prostitution is every where. i'm working here in saudi and i cannot believe how open prostitution in dubai is. you can just go to a near by parking lot and see lots of girls offering their services either its a one shot or a one hour any time of the day. so please for those of you who insist that dubai is not a sin city, don't be a hypocrit and start opening your eyes to the truth.

Posted by: Jake at June 15, 2006 04:53 PM

As a citizin of Dubai who has been living here, I can say that you (the Western world) have succeeded in spoiling Dubai from an arabic muslim city to a sinful city.

We deserve better than this - much better.

Posted by: Citizin at August 5, 2006 04:40 PM

I am a Brit expat living and working in Dubai for 4 months - I have not seen any prostitution or drugs in public at all. There is a PR machine in the west that wants to bring Dubai down as it is a much nicer place to live and work in than London or NYC (I've worked in both) - the standard of living is tops. Stop being jealous of Dubai and admit that its fast becoming the number one choice for professionals and families to migrate to.

Posted by: Brit Expat at September 12, 2006 12:39 PM

I am proud to say that I think that Dubai and its inhabitants have made the area and city one of the most desireable cities/countries in the world to visit. I have spent many days/months in Sharjah and Dubai and I will always reccomend either city to anyone, Dubai for its' diversity and Sharjah for its' history and determination to keep traditional values upheld. I also admire the desire to maintain Sharjah as a Muslim State, with its' religious beliefs honoured and observed. Yes, there is prostitution in Dubai, but if the "Authorities" that allow these women into the country in the first instance are aware of these "illegal" activities, then why are they not stopped at the source, the Immigration Desk ? And may I also add that should a Westerner be caught with a Prostitute, that he be named and shamed, and all his assets seized by the State to fund the fight against Vice and Religious Abuse.


A Brit with Wide Open Eyes !!

Posted by: Brit Who Has Been at October 4, 2006 02:39 PM

I think it is a shame with the activities in Dubai the young and famous prostitutes. Drive at night see the Saudis, Brits and locals sweeping the streets like vultures for the same prostitutes day in and dayout. The authorities are aware off this BUT turn a blind the dollars are talking. They say give an arab wine and women and he is YOURS 4 Life.(sorry to be so bold but I had to say it) All I say is the TIME will come...

Posted by: Anony at October 11, 2006 11:57 AM

I do agree with Brit Expat. It just seems like a bad case of sour grapes. People tend to get jealous of another city's huge success and growth. And this is what is happening in the West through PR. Every country has its pros and cons, Dubai is no exception.

It is a avery young country though and in time things will be worked out. Dubai has come a long way from the 70s in all aspects of life, and it will continue to improve. It offers a great lifestyle without any doubt and also allows you to save, unlike Western countries that like to milk you ad force you to live paycheck to paycheck. Screw that crap.

The fact is these sour grapeshave been predicting the downfall of Dubai and bitching about it for years.

Best thing is to just forget about these ignoranty and jealous people. Better things to focus on eh!

Posted by: Dave at November 24, 2006 04:11 PM

My wife and I met in Dubai 25 years ago. We have just returned from a revisit. We decided to have a drink and called in to the Astoria Hotel. Downstairs we saw a bar and the door was guarded by an official looking man in uniform We asked if it was OK to go in and he looked at us surprised and said yes. We walked in and the bar was full of Philipino looking girls...and anyone who says there are no prostitues should think again. There is absolutely no doubt what they were doing there. We then went upstairs and had a drink at another bar. During that time we witnessed pairs of these girls coming in and chatting up men . They were under the control of pimps who monitored evrything.They were also under the ultimate control of the officlals in uniform Think again doubters..and visit this yourself. You're have to witness it first hand.

Posted by: Bob Evans at January 22, 2007 01:44 PM

Hello there,
i would just like to add a few comments to this discussion...1.) Prostitution and drugs are in every city no matter where you are behind close doors or nottt..2.) Who cares about what the saudis are doing with their spare time..its their money....if they want whores let them have whores..... What does it have to do with you.... 3.) Dubia is a good city...beautiful... i am not worried about the hooker down the street.. or the saudi eye balling me... i mind my business.... some people need too...4.)GET A LIFE...stop worring about what others are doing.... who cares... we all have to answer to God one day...chill out....5.) Muslims are just like everybody else...we are just human....we have weaknesses...6.) We are all hyporcrits....

i am an american... i have seen it all....heard it all....Just live your life... Be happy..... be the best you can be.... love ya

Posted by: Misty at March 12, 2007 08:22 AM

Few points to add to the discussion. I have lived 10 years in Dubai. Human rights!!!! unheard off in Dubai. Unions are banned for instance. Unleveled play ground business wise unless sponsored by a "connected local". People are born and raised in Dubai but denied citizenship and government jobs. A local woman would lose her citizenship if she married a non local and the born kids would have no nationality.
Prostitutes: log to and see Dubai page. AT one point, Dubai authorities decided to stop such trend few years back but hotels (mostly owned by connected locals and sheiks) suffered. So they had to ease the restrictions again.
Drugs: I know someone who got 25 years in jail for selling a joint to a friend who was forced to go undercover for the CID. Also, someone, who got 100,000 Dhs fine when he had 12 kg of Heroine....laws make no sense. Prosecutors would not allow lawyers to intervene until case is brought up to the judge. (most judges are Egyptians who do whatever prosecutors say to keep their well paid jobs and benefits)
Dubai is a nice city to live in, make some money, mind your business, and then get out where you can feel human again.....You may wanna consider NY then

Posted by: No difference at June 18, 2007 08:24 AM

I've lived in Dubai, 15+ years experience of what the culture there is about. I agree with the facts stated in the article that Dubai is shining a little too bright for comfort.When I had left in the mid-nineties, it was comparable to Muscat. Today, yea...Vegas/Manhattan.
The observations made by the writer about sex and debauchery is true. Dubai is an artificial version of what Lebanon was in the 70s.

Dubai is proof that Rome CAN be built in one day. But you need Romans to be able to run Rome. People in Dubai are only trying on their Roman hats for a temporary period. And yet, Dubai may argue that their permanent ambition is to keep bringing in the temporary tourists.

Posted by: Ali at June 19, 2007 11:01 PM

I am a Saudi who travels all over the world including Dubai. The author is either ignorant or evasive as not all Saudis subscribe to Wahhabism. Just like not all Brits follow the Church of England. Blame Vice on Saudis? Watch out Brits the Saudis are getting to Ibiza. Oh maybe the Saudis run Dubai afterall.
You are right Misty and Dave, they are jealous... or perhaps the author is looking for a job in the Vice sqad Dubai, anyway the author must stop bashing Saudis or other nationals.

Posted by: a regular saudi at October 9, 2007 04:28 PM

I have to give a big applaud to misty......
What is the big deal about prostitution? Since when is wanting to have sex such a big crime against society or god? Is it that much better for a woman to have to be a mans wife to receive financial stabililty? Seems like this whole idea that prositution is a "vice" is some kind of shovanistic ideal. I am sure if we were all in the garden of eden with no money or economy worries, the idea of free sex would be only natural rather than a vice...... Wake up people, its all a big head game. Live Love and be Free. Dont judge and play the part of telling everyone who and how they should be. At least this city is not contaminated with drug use, which is a genuinly life threatening practice that leads to brain damage and many other problems.

Posted by: zoe at November 2, 2007 10:37 PM

Duabi is the sinnest city on earth!!!
i am amazed how u did u compare it with new york!!
bcs to me it's worse than bangkok in sexpolaitation!!!!
Sure if u look at the no.s u'll disagree.but when u compare Hookers with per 10,000 people!!Dubai is on the top..
I wonder why Usama has probems with the west when in their own backyard they have a hookers heaven which doesnt even exsist in vegas!!sure vegas has more casinos though..

Posted by: Yaqoub at November 30, 2007 09:40 PM

I am a muslim american and i would love to visit dubai - i think poeple are so quick to point what they believe (like their words is law) who cares i am sure they are sinners --- if it`s not your country why do you care??? Prostitution has been around for ever- it is probably the first profession -- i can go to a spa here in texas and get the same services-- who cares????????

Posted by: amina mohammad at June 26, 2008 05:51 PM

prostitution in duba, its alive and well!
the oldest profession in the world.
i never would have thought! the middle east being a supposed holy land in which people pray to GOD 5x a day.
this boggles my mind.
1st time trip to Dubai, It was nice but I'll stick to Aruba next time.
All that luxury is just a mask for the true poverty and uglinesss that lies beneath!!!!
I was wondering why so many european and asian women with muslim men?
Isnt this supposedly against their culture?
The malls, the hotel bars, the clubs, its everywhere and OBVIOUSS!!!!


Posted by: amazed! at August 6, 2008 11:27 AM

I guess people have to defend their own country or region.

But the truth is... UAE is on its knees on a a knockdown.
People are leaving. Brits are leaving. Everyone is leaving.

People just can't see the other side of leaders... GREED...

The reason of their downfall is because of exagerated rental and property prices.
They think of anyting that will give them easy money.
Such a small city like Dubai has automatic Toll reading fees everywhere which cost more than $1 everytime you pass one. And believe me if you drive around in day you might pass by more average 5 or 6 tolls.
They create ideas like ID system obliging everyone to register which cost around $100+ per person.

News released everyday are controlled.
And they release new rule which was decided just last night.
Almost most of pakistanis are gay who likes men and looks at you like they want to eat you. Some other nationalities stinks a lot.

Yes. they say UAE is tax free country. but by the way they control things around here. everyone got fooled.

Yes there is no Tax here. BUT in a way they take it from visas and other money making schemes they can think of. People are just blinded with what they announced to the world.
They earn more than tax. and you know what, TAX will be implemented by 2010.

So, Money making schemes + tax + visas = CRAP!!!

Posted by: Anton at January 30, 2009 08:41 AM

Dubai has so much prostitution because it has proportionately the largest number of single men in the world. So there was a demand and an opportunity for someone to make lots of money out of the whole sleazy business.These girls have to buy their visas and guess where that money goes? and of course someone owns those clubs and bars where these ladies hang out. We are talking serious dosh here and most of it is ending up in the pockets of some very respectable people. The place cannot be compared to any other in the world because it is an abnormal city that has grown to abnormal proportions and is now in meltdown. So those of you enjoying the "wonderful lifestyle", good luck. The party is (almost) over. This is no sour grapes folks. I live in a lovely hilltop villa in cyprus where i get all the lifestyle i can handle minus the 120% humidity, pollution, dust, traffic and silly laws that you "wonderful lifestyle" guys have to put up with every single day of your "wonderful" lives. Enjoy :)

Posted by: Christopher D'cruz at February 27, 2009 02:21 AM

Enough said

Posted by: anom at April 23, 2009 12:44 PM
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