Dubai's Sex Crackdown
The Sex and the City sequel faces delays after Dubai rejected its film permit. A decision, Eric Pape reports, reflective of a morals code now threatening this reeling free-market playground.
The plot of Sex and the City II may be a well-kept secret, but it isn’t hard to imagine the potential allure of Dubai as a destination for Carrie and Co.—at least until they were recently rejected by the slickest city in the Middle East. Dubai has that aura, like New York, of being the ultimate adult playground—with a luxurious mystique so unique that a prominent perfume maker is creating a special scent for it. In short, it is a place where the four favorite demoiselles would have plenty of opportunity to stir up trouble.
One expatriate was detained for public indecency for wearing a cancer-awareness T-shirt by Marc Jacobs that showed Victoria Beckham naked, along with the slogan: “Protect the skin you’re in.”
Miranda might find work in Dubai’s vast expatriate community, first stopping in the airport’s duty-free shop to pick up the ingredients for homemade cosmopolitans. Charlotte could hold hands with a successful English beau as she glides nervously down Ski Dubai’s little slope in a massive indoor mall (as the thermometer scratches at 120 degrees outside). Carrie might reflect on life as she looks in the windows of some of the world’s priciest diamond and shoe shops. And Samantha would surely get under the long robes of some hunky sheik, perhaps atop the soon-to-be-completed Burj Dubai, an elegant-looking 162-floor silver needle of a building that is already the tallest manmade construction (and phallic symbol) on earth.
Except some of these activities would likely land New York City’s favorite women in jail (I’ll give some real examples in a moment), which may be why, after reading the script, local authorities rejected the studio’s bid to film part of the SATC sequel in Dubai, even though they have been working to draw film shoots. The official reason, Dubai Studio City explained in a statement excerpted in The National (a Dubai daily), is that “the relevant government authority” contrasted the script with Dubai’s “multicultural fabric” and “perceptions” of Emirati society, and decided that there would be no sex in any Emirate city.
This decision came as enough of a surprise to the studio that it risks delaying next summer’s planned release. But maybe it shouldn’t have been a shock: The first Sex and the City film (which grossed more than $400 million world-wide) wasn’t permitted in Dubai theaters. And plenty of members of Dubai’s expatriate community—which makes up 80 percent of the population—have bumped up against the contradictions of the new Dubai, which is ultramodern and yet one of seven Emirates still governed by a set of Islam-inspired rules and laws that are almost unimaginable for Westerners.
In the runup to the holy month of Ramadan (which begins August 22), MTV Arabia, which is based in Dubai, offers public-service announcements to discourage kids from cursing, amid a steady diet of busty bikini-clad ladies thrusting their wares at the screen. Alcohol possession is illégal—as is being drunk—yet foreigners consume plenty of it in hotel bars. Foreigners are wooed to work in Dubai and invest in its speculation-rife real-estate market (now deflating fast), but they can go to jail for simply bouncing a check.
In Dubai’s vast malls, shoppers sometimes see signs asking them to dress acceptably, respect local mores, and avoid public displays of affection. One expatriate was detained for public indecency for wearing a cancer-awareness T-shirt by Marc Jacobs that showed Victoria Beckham naked, along with the slogan: “Protect the skin you’re in.” And several luxury retailers have been asked to remove racy T-shirts from their stock. The sex scenes are snipped out of films in theatrical or DVD release, and cursing is rarely ever translated in the subtitles.
This month, a European couple reportedly ended up before a judge because of a European-style "greeting" kiss. The woman pleaded guilty to “consensual dishonor.” (When the woman told the judge that it was normal, he retorted: “Maybe it’s normal in Russia.”) The Russian man she greeted was charged with adultery. Another foreign woman was pardoned only after she spent 68 days in jail following a late-night police raid that caught her and her male Emirati boss—working late at the office.
Last year, in a more Samantha-esque case, two thirtysomething British tourists met at a Champagne brunch at Dubai’s luxurious Le Meridien hotel. They retired to Jumeirah Beach, where a police officer found them engaging in some serious-sounding public fondling. The officer ordered them to stop, and left. When he came back, he testified, they were getting coital on a chaise longue. The woman asserted that they were just “kissing and hugging”—and a defense lawyer argued that a medical exam proved that she had not had sex on the beach. They were fined about $270, for being drunk in public, and sentenced to three months in jail (and then deportation) for public sex. Part of the crime was that they weren’t married. The prosecutor was disappointed; the standard jail time for such offenses is six months or a year. In all, more than 500 people from English-speaking countries (U.K., Australia, the U.S. and Canada) have been arrested in the Emirates since January 2008.
Ironically, Dubai’s residents can watch cable-television episodes of Sex and the City (uncensored, according to Showtime Arabia’s CEO). They can also see locally shot scenes of other films, including George Clooney’s pointed international political thriller Syriana. They can hear MTV analysts wax rhapsodic about Chris Brown’s apology to Rihanna. And they can be peppered with sex-on-their-cellphone spam. But authorities have decided that they won’t be getting any closer to New York City’s four famous poster girls for promiscuity.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.