The world moves on… and much of it does not. While the West has taken an enlightened view of homosexuality Muslim countries have entrenched deeper against this natural variant of sexuality. But not all have grown as backward as Afghanistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia. I traveled to the UAE where I visited four of the seven emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Fujairah) but primarily Dubai. Here the world seems to have moved forward–along with Abu Dhabi–into the 21st century (depending on one’s station in life) with a ‘one legged’ race to the future, meaning significant advances in architecture and commerce.
However when it comes to freedom of speech and press, it’s another story. Said an expat American friend living in Dubai: “ neither speech nor the press are free here. You won’t hear what happens to people who say what the government doesn’t want said. People have a good idea of what the limits are and don’t usually push them.” The Sheikhs who run Dubai are not to be criticized and any ‘unusual’ activity’ is best kept out of sight and sound. That said, there are no morality police in the streets switching women who wear skirts too short, no police entrapments for gays.
These emirates are not small villages. Rather, they are big cities with millions of people, millions of cars, millions of business venues, millions of houses and condos. My sense of gay life here with so many people, is that it’s possible to live comfortably and of course anonymously. It would not be too difficult because of the large populations (Dubai and Abu Dhabi each have populations over two million), abundant enterprises, busy commerce and huge tourist infrastructures; discretion is a common aspect of one’s lifestyle here. Said another way, there are thousands of LGBT folks who successfully habitate and work in the UAE, some for a few months and others for years with or without a primary partner.
At the same time, it is also an exaggeration and distortion of the reality here on the ground. More than eighty percent of the UAE population are expats, foreigners working here in the Emirates. Most of these workers are from South Asia—Pakistan, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, as well as many from all over Asia. During my visit I met people from Nepal, Korea, Uzbekistan, Oman, Burma, also Nepal, Kenya, Korea, Spain, Ethiopia, Algeria and elsewhere in Africa. As usual with expat workers these populations tend to live and work mostly with others from their own cultures. Indeed, it’s more accurate to say instead of ’the’ population of UAE, there are many distinct sub-populations including workers from Western Europe and North America; among these are LGBTs whose gay lives are much reduced to friendship circles and mobile apps.
Virtually all construction workers (mostly south Asian) live in dormitory style quarters built by employers. The vast majority of these people are laborers as the UAE continues to erect skyscrapers and huge shopping malls to accommodate the great numbers of tourists and business expats who come to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Virtually all the recent construction of the stylish skyscrapers was done by sweaty manual laborers from Asia in crews of thousands working in shifts day and night that could remind one of slave conditions—except they are paid. Unskilled laborers, especially many Bangladeshis, are bound by poverty to long work days earning money that is sent home to their families. One truck driver said he went home every two years.
As for these laborers I can’t say much about their private lives; my guess is they toil in Dubai for years on end with only a rare visit home. Salaries for construction workers are about $200-300 a month. Most of these workers live in shared rooms–and beds–in employer-provided dormitories (sometimes 12-20 per room) to save money. Their sweaty labor is the backbone of the stylish cityscape the world knows as modern UAE.
Among these workers are of course LGBTs with little education and only some awareness of meaning of being gay. Some engage in furtive quickies while some have regulars. There is very little underground network of queer life for these low-level workers. Besides, getting caught doing something illegal like gay sex they risk arrest and/or deportation which puts their whole family at risk. It’s a very big closet in the UAE and it stays full with only small windows. Needless to say there is little chance for privacy in such places even during the few hours of free time in a week. However, one reporter managed to find a couple of workers who understand and act on their gay feelings. The rare news article is titled: ‘The Other Side–A Working Class Gay Laborer’
Other imported workers such as taxi and bus drivers (Pakistanis) and maintenance workers live in apartments rented by a groups of nationals who share rooms, sometimes a dozen or more in a two bedroom condo, sometimes sharing beds in alternating shifts. There are also many South Asian family groups (Indians) who run private businesses like small restaurants, shawarma/falafel eateries, dry cleaners, convenience stores, clothing and tailor shops and ubiquitous Chinese dollar stores; most of these folks live in extended family units in one dwelling, often upstairs from the commercial business. Then there are the countless Indians–mostly Hindu–who also serve and drive and cook, as well as educated ones who work in offices and hotels. Among them are many who have grown up in UAE, married and whose children have never been to India.
As mentioned, in addition to the Asian societies listed there are countless Euro-American workers, many business types in coats-and-ties, pressed slacks and ironed shirts looking like their counterparts in London, Toronto or Chicago. Most of these are professionals involved in tourism, petroleum-gas, finance, NGOs and construction who populate the middle and upper management echelons. (NGOs in UAE face stringent requirements which inhibits their number and charity activity. See: http://gulfnews.com/news/uae/general/expat-ngos-hit-by-tough-registration-criteria-1.1363104) The vast majority of these workers ride the buses and the Metro while most construction laborers are driven from company dorms to work site in unmarked buses.
An Emirati friend said there was an unspoken hierarchy of labor in Dubai. The lowest were the Bangladeshis who pour cement, clean toilets, mop floors and dig holes; next up were the Pakistani taxi and bus drivers; then the Indians who were everywhere in commerce–small grocery shops, hotel personnel, lower management in corporations. Moving up are middle management educated Caucasians and Chinese. Then there were high level executives and engineers mostly from the West mostly from USA, UK, Germany, and some from China whose countries and multinational corporations are shaping the future of Arabia (unless the extremists and militants take over).
On top of the heap are the well-connected Emirati natives whose families have benefited from business ventures in oil and real estate and banking often in association with executives of Western corporations who ride in air conditioned luxury cars. The only sign of these privileged natives I saw was an occasional hot-shot native young man driving around in a noisy Ferrari, Lamborgini or Porsche. More common were their parents riding in a Mercedes and Audi or Ford. (I saw only two Bentleys.)
For such middle-upper-class people, being gay is equally private but more conveniently done, protected by wealth in high-rise hotel and condo rooms where call-boys or boyfriends or husbands can visit with no questioned asked.
However this the age of the internet and mobile devices have become ‘great levelers’. Virtually everyone here has a cell phone. Most people come the the ‘watering hole’ of sexuality despite their job, status, financial status, nationality, cultural differences. Sex is the common ground where male hormones are equal and desire has the same outcome, whether an Emirati driving a hot car or an office worker from Sri Lanka or hotel clerk from Korea or a tour guide from South Africa or an engineer from UK or a construction supervisor from Canada… all come sooner or later to the need for human contact, whether momentary, monetary or long term. And one platform for this equality is the internet–websites and apps–virtual meeting places, the social media collective gathers for pleasure and intimacy.
Obviously with such diverse cultures there are different LGBT subgroups here. That is, there are as many pockets of LGBT folks as there are immigrant populations who live here full time or for a few years. However it was not possible for me to delve into the personal lives of these various expat subsets. That would take living in Dubai or Abu Dhabi for at least a couple of years to slowly find LGBTs among these various expats.
So I did the next best thing, I went online to one of the several gay male hook-up-dating sites to one called Manjam and posted an ad looking for non-sexual contacts to interview in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Not surprising I received sex-driven replies anyway from afar as southern Africa, and northern Americas. (obviously many over-eager folks don’t read ads carefully.) But I did sort through the dozens of replies to finally find two English speaking UAE gay residents who were articulate and interested in talking.
I spent a pleasant evening with two new friends, Ahmed born in Oman and Peter of USA both full time residents in Dubai. Ahmed works in HR for a procurement company. Peter is a math professor (PhD) at a university here. I first contacted Peter via Manjam. He and I corresponded a few times and finally arranged to meet in our Ibis hotel in Al Rigga district in central Dubai city. We had dinner and a lively chat about living as LGBT people in the Emirates. Best friends, they were eager and articulate college graduates and more than willing to tell the not-so-secret secrets of being gay in this Arab Muslim country. The biggest open secret is that there are thousands of LGBT people in UAE living prosperous and playful lives with little worry about persecution or arrest. “Discretion is the key word to living a satisfying gay or lesbian love/sex life here,” said Peter.
My first jolt into their reality here came from asking where they met: “at an orgy” they both replied. “Some friends of ours were organizing one so we were invited and spent the night with our clothes off,” said Ahmed, with a laugh and happy recollection of the mixer. But despite that sparkling start to our talk (they both claimed the orgy was very unusual for them and neither has repeated it) the rest of our evening’s conversation was within ‘normal limits’ about job responsibilities, family histories, and the various accoutrements of modern high tech life here: cell phone service, a car (for Ahmed), how they came to live in Dubai, college education, modern history (Ahmed had never heard of Stalin), travels to far off and near places although Ahmed had never been to America. Peter had not been to Southeast Asia but rather all over Western Europe.
In other words here were two ‘typical’ mid-level gay professionals in modern Dubai, educated, well employed, fluent in English, unafraid of their sexuality and willing to laugh about it (quietly) in a public restaurant while making the usual contacts with other well-groomed friends, arranging dinner parties and watching their favorite movies online. It was not quite what I expected to find in the UAE that is ruled by seven sheikhs presiding over Islamic governments vehemently opposed to homosexuality. What had been missing in my understanding of UAE was the larger truth that over 80% of the people in UAE are foreigners, expats who have brought their various cultures with them, including these two western and westernized professional gay men who enjoyed busy schedules at work and at play with no serious interference from authorities. All the dire cautions I had read about in Dubai seemed mere background noise to the freedom these guys enjoyed.
Making friends here is like anywhere (in the West) with introductions at parties and casual meet-ups. In the past recent years internet apps have greatly widened Ahmed’s and Peter’s acquaintance and hook-up circles. Ahmed showed me three gay apps that he uses often on his mobile phone. Using these programs is as easy as saying hello. The success rate of course depends on two crucial ingredients–having a private residence to host a chosen partner and having a mobile phone.
I’m talking here about the middle and upper class expats who are independent of others (i.e. not attached to or living with an ethnic group or family) and can afford to meet guys as easily as anywhere in a big city like Amsterdam or New York. “There are no gay bars or clubs in UAE. Rather there is a word-of-mouth gossip network that reports the latest gay-friendly venue. Ahmed said these bars or clubs change, come and go. The problem is popularity. If too many guys show up too many times at any one place it will be noticed by non-gays or the police and the venue is forced to close or relocate under a different name in an on-going cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game of musical chairs. “Places may change but the desire doesn’t,” said Peter.
One of the most useful tips for getting around and understanding the gay UAE scene is to know someone here. Walking down a street it is very difficult to discern who is and who is not one of us. Native and immigrant people use their eyes to size up others for their ethnic source, their financial status, their social rank so it’s hard to tell who is LGBT since everyone seems to probe and ask silent questions. Clothing gives no clue; there are all kinds of clothing styles, from burkas to jeans and T-shirts. But no one dresses ‘gay’ here. There are so many different people in public that everyone seems a curiosity. Finding a LGBT club or bar is virtually impossible without a guide. All it takes is one knowing friend to lead the way to the latest happening place. Not that there are full-time gay bars or clubs. Instead, “there are gays who organize events”, said Peter, “the trick is to find a club venue willing to host them once or several times–until the government finds out and orders them to stop. Sometimes these venues can last for a few months and sometimes for only a week or two. Actually, right now (spring 2015) they seem to be cracking down on everything fast for some reason, so nothing gay lasts for long. Someone high up must have gotten upset about something. For gays this is one of the most annoying and insulting aspects of living here.”
A Visit By Winnie
In 2011 a self-proclaimed ‘fag-hag’ reporter named Winnie Li went to Dubai to hook up with an Australian expat living there who was her entree to gay spots, un-named of course. Once safely inside an anonymous venue Winne saw familiar flair and dancing. “I might as well have been in Los Angeles,” she said of the mostly upscale customers and energy she encountered.
In the mix of course were native Emerati men. Winnie was told of a local airline pilot whose behavior became more swish the more he had to drink, calling out at one point, “just call me Mimi.” Winnie went on to say, “there’s a very good chance pilot/Mimi is married (to a woman) with children. After all, it’s taken for granted in Gulf culture that as a man, you will have a family, regardless of your sexual orientation. All people are expected to become breeders. And a great number of marriages are by arrangement, and not for love. Adrian described a Kuwaiti gay couple who had had a relationship for years, since they were very young. One got married and one managed to stay “single.” But they continued to see each other over the decades, on fishing trips and weekends away.”
After leaving that bar Winnie was taken to another “gayest” club in a three-star hotel where she was awed at “the diversity of gayness in the place. You had everything from very camp, very effeminate boys, to the hairy middle-aged “bears” and everything in between – all styles, all races, Arabs, Africans, Asians, Western ex-pats. In the West, gay clubs are often pigeonholed into the one for bears, the one for twinks, the one for slim Asians and the older white men who love them, etc. But here, in a Muslim society where gay culture is concealed from the mainstream, an underground gay club is equal opportunity, indiscriminate, all-encompassing.” As much as the place was a play room it was, crucially, a safe haven in this small Emirate with laws against homosexuality. A mix of east and west, north and south, customers from everywhere danced drank chatted and hooked-up, all connected by the invisible energy of gaydar.
The Other Side: A Working Class Gay Laborer
“It took me time to realize that I actually liked to sleep with other men…” This is a touching news report about gay Indian men working in Dubai as part of the laboring class that lives in dormitories and builds the stylish skyscrapers. Years of Living Dangerously: Being Gay and Indian in Dubai by Raksha Kumar, published online by FirstPost.com in February 2014.
“For those who are rich, it is easier to have their secret sex lives irrespective of their sexual preferences and not be intimidated by others. But for us with little money, we are always scared,” says Pasha who came to Dubai 25 years ago. He says there are several of his friends have been living under a shadow of fear for several decades now. The Federal Penal Code of the United Arab Emirates consensual sodomy is punishable by death. For both Pasha and his friend Nadeem the threat is lethal. Nadeem narrates the story of another man from India who was caught having a sexual relationship with another man by the warden of the camp. “They say both were executed,” he said.
“There are conservative religious people who reside in the camps who threaten us but no one in the camp knows for sure about Nadeem’s sexual orientation, but several people suspect it. Presently, he has been in a committed relationship with a man who also resides in the same area for more than 2 years. “We are very happy,” he says. Nadeem says his partner is the only reason he looks forward to going back to the ruthless camp.
Since Nadeem and his partner are from different countries, they do not live in the same room. Rooms are allotted according to nationalities. Nadeem sneaks into his partner’s room when his partner’s seven roommates are away. “And that happens once in a blue moon,” he said. They walk in the camps in the evenings, muttering romantic words to each other. They do get some alone time if they go out to watch movies over the weekends. “But, I have to send money home and I rarely can afford a movie,” he said.
(At the other end of the economic scale are the wealthy: A Saudi Arabia national who frequents Dubai said, “I book rooms at the Hilton or Sheraton when I feel like. Also, there are also unofficial gay hangouts that circulate the web and are open to people with connections.” Sites like Manjam, Grindr or Growlr provide companionship day or night.)
Amidst the tension of maintaining secrecy in the camps, Pasha adds a light moment. “Back in our country, the source of entertainment and relaxation was sex, before TV came into our homes,” he said with a laugh. “I just think it is no different here, given many of us cannot afford televisions,” he added. Pasha is married and has two children who study in government colleges.
At the end of the day, such secrets come as no surprise. It’s the same everywhere in every culture. Only the names and places and conditions change. That’s why its called the ‘world’s oldest profession’. Whether it’s done at the top by Shiekhs with their ‘favorites’ or by middle class folks with their ‘tricks’ or the manual class with ‘baki boy’ types, it’s all there. It’s no big deal for those in the know, because it’s necessary, but for those who are ‘religion-infested’ and think there is something wrong with it they mostly keep silent since more than a few of them succumb to concupiscence now and then—or more often.