Common courtesy tells us that when in Rome, we are to do what the Romans do. But what happens when the Romans are a minority?
Such is one of the questions that international travelers in the United Arab Emirates – and the UAE government – face today. International tourism has played a consequential role in developing the United Arab Emirates’ most populous city: guests from around the world mean more opportunities for economic growth, an ever-expanding nightlife and unique blends of architecture – as well as a hard balance for UAE government officials to strike regarding cultural norms.
According to the BBC, Emiratis make up less than 20 percent of the population’s eight million people, and as of 2011 a whopping nine million people visited the city of Dubai. So in June 2012, when two Emirati women started a well-publicized Twitter campaign in which they stated that tourists disrespected Dubai’s culture and demanded that foreigners cover up in public places, the government was put in an awkward situation: how do we look after local interests without alienating too many sources of a critical revenue stream?
Many travelers don’t recognize that there is indeed a dress code in Dubai, and that it is part of Dubai’s criminal law. Add to that the fact that tourists are required to obey some Muslim religious restrictions, and it is entirely possible that a less-than-modestly dressed traveler might find herself at a less-than-desired destination while on her trip: the police station.
Dubai shopping malls already feature signs that ask shoppers to cover their shoulders and knees, but to some Emiratis, that’s not enough. Such displeasure comes at a time when Islamism is gaining popularity elsewhere in the Middle East, and for some time – thanks in part to the revenue generated by foreign investment and tourism – the UAE has been able to insulate itself from that and its ensuing conflicts. As with the hula hoop, though, the key question is how long this balancing act can last.