Who can forget the infamous incident of two years ago when a British woman was arrested in a Dubai mall for stripping down to a bikini following an argument with an Emirati woman who accused the expat of not being respectful of the UAE culture and wearing ‘revealing’ clothes in a public area.
The hot debate that snowballed in its aftermath snuffed out shortly after even as Dubai malls continued their vigilance by posting a number of signs to wear ‘respectful clothing’ in the shopping centres.
However, it took another 21 months for a few concerned Emiratis and local expats to revisit the debate and give rise to the ‘UAE Dress Code’ hashtag that has united concerned residents strongly enough for it to trend on Twitter earlier today.
Supporters of the cause are saying, if social media can topple governments and give rise to the Arab Spring, then why can’t it bring about reforms and laws that protect a country’s culture and values?
Not just a ‘cover up’
Many Emiratis and expats alike have come forth in the past few days in a bid to educate and request others to be ‘respectful’ of the UAE culture.
Said one Emirati social media enthusiast, who did not wish to be named: “This debate is not about raising a divide between Emiratis and expats, but rather one that wants to unite different communities into expecting each other’s differences in a more respectful manner.
“We want people to be respectful of that fact that the UAE is ultimately a Muslim country and while the lifestyle is very tolerable and liberal in comparison to other countries in the Middle East, there are some limits that should not be crossed in public places as a courteous gesture to the locals and their culture.”
K Bin Hendi, one of the instrumental players to educate in the online social media campaign tweeted earlier: “For whoever said that the #UAEDresscode is about “attacking” UAE liberals is totally wrong. It is about the dress code and nothing else.”
Another such Twitterati who agrees is Hanan Al Rayes who said: “#UAEDresscode campaign will continue to raise the awareness and clarify our goal ‘wearing acceptable clothes in public’ [sic].”
Meanwhile expat, Ashu stated: “I support #UAEdresscode – our differences make this world beautiful; our respect for these differences makes it more equal.”
However, while the majority of those embroiled in the social media debate have supported the movement, there are others who are urging to help this cause forward.
A tweet by Nono, who has been instrumental in starting the healthy debate online, stated: “#UAEdresscode finally a debate about what is happening in UAE! Westerners have pushed all boundaries here; it’s time to wake up for Emiratis.”
The added: “#UAEdresscode see tweet of an expat: “Oh my legs offend you? Your gator bag, plus heels and mink coat in 40 degrees make perfect sense”. No respect.”
And then there are those with a stronger stance, such as Muhammad Farooq tweeted: “#UAEdresscode Should be Qandoora for men and Abaya for women.”
What is the law?
What has come across by Emiratis and expats alike in this hotly debated topic is the confusion over the law itself, and why isn’t it being enforced?
Ryan Darnell tweeted: “Why can’t #UAEdresscode just involve a friendly chat to those who don’t know? I am all for it but more rules needed in other areas first.”
Fatma Al Hashimi asked: “There are banners with what should be worn in the malls, yet there’s no one abiding by the rules, so where’s the punishment to that?”
Jalal Bin Thaneya takes the query forward, tweeting: “Who will enforce a law like this? I do not see any authority making sure people are dressed appropriately anytime soon.”
As the debate takes centrestage, the British Ambassador to the UAE has urged expats and tourists to understand dress codes in the country in an interview with 999 Magazine – the official English monthly of the Ministry of Interior.
Dominic Jermey OBE said: “It is really important for expats and tourists to understand the norms of the society they are in."
Many expatriates lack knowledge of UAE
A file picture of UAE nationals and expats sit down to share a meal during National Day celebrations in Ras Al Khaimah. (WAM)
A survey conducted by '999 Magazine' – the official English monthly of the Ministry of Interior – reveals that 7 out of 10 expats lack knowledge of UAE local customs and traditions.
The survey, which asked 2,000 UAE expats about their level of cultural awareness, shows that despite the abundance of learning resources and materials available, a whopping 72 per cent of expats know little about their host country.
Only 28 per cent of respondents had any real knowledge of the country’s local customs and traditions.
Similarly, only a third of the respondents set aside enough time to find out about the UAE’s culture, while the rest were comfortable with occasional glimpses.
In fact, 11 per cent confessed they never really bothered trying.
Lt. Colonel Awadh Saleh Al Kindi, Editor-in-Chief of 999, said: “The UAE is home to more than 200 different nationalities and has become known across the world for its low crime, modern outlook and the peaceful co-existence of its people.
“A survey conducted by 999, however, reveals a dismaying fact that many expat residents have a very limited knowledge of the customs, traditions, and heritage of the UAE. We hope that the results of the survey will stimulate people to exert greater efforts in this area.”
The 999 survey, which randomly covered Westerners (39 per cent), Asian (42 per cent), Arabs (15 per cent), Africans and others (4 per cent), revealed a large gap in knowledge about the UAE, despite the fact that most of the people surveyed were not new to the country.
Indeed, 77 per cent of those surveyed had lived in the UAE for more than a year, 34 per cent between two and five years, 22 per cent between five and ten years and 21 per cent of them more than ten years.
Just 23 per cent had spent only one year or less.
Of the 2,000 people questioned about how good their individual knowledge of UAE history, customs and culture was, a huge 60 per cent said they only knew the basics.
And a brave 12 per cent admitted to knowing next to nothing.
In response to being asked how often do you try to learn about the UAE’s culture, half said “occasionally” and 16 per cent confessed to it being hardly ever.
This lack of cultural awareness exists despite the fact that a large majority (70 per cent) of the respondents admitted there were enough resources available through which expatriates could learn about the UAE.
One other issue of concern however is the source of the information they actually do have.
Most respondents depended on word-of-mouth for getting any knowledge, increasing the risk of miscommunication or incorrect information being passed on, especially as they tended to ask people who only knew only the basics as well (usually other expats).
The survey is published in the February issue of English 999 magazine, a part of the Strategic Plan of the Ministry of the Interior to provide media coverage for the activities and efforts of the ministry and Abu Dhabi Police. It also aims to encourage the public to contribute to the reduction of crime in the UAE.