Thoughts on Abu Dhabi, Part 2: Ethical Travel, LGBT Rights in the UAE, and Why One Blogger Should Be Ashamed of Himself

I have spent most of my professional life thinking about issues of injustice and inequality. When I travel, I try not to let these concerns dominate my thinking. I remember a speaker I heard in college, some noted activist whose name I can’t recall, who made the point that people working in social justice fields should not feel bad about taking vacations or indulging themselves outside of work, because you need that stress relief and recharging in order to be your best in your justice-related work. Nonetheless, I think I do think about injustice and inequality in the places I visit a bit more than the average traveler while vacationing, and it would be weird if I didn’t.

As I mentioned in my introductory post on this trip, I had a lot of ethical concerns about traveling to the UAE. These fall into three categories. The one that likely concerned my mother the most was the relationship between the UAE and Jews. The UAE does not recognize the existence of the State of Israel. I am very moderate on my views of Arab-Israeli relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, favoring a two-state solution, and wishing that both the left and the right outside Israel learn that there is nothing mutually exclusive between (1) supporting the right of the State of Israel to exist and (2) being willing to criticize specific policies of the current government in Israel. As I frequently explain many times, I support the existence of the USA, yet am opposed to specific policies of even the current government, which I voted for (twice). I think refusing to recognize a nation’s existence is silly, but that alone is a foreign policy decision that didn’t cause me much sturm und drang. I also checked online, and the UAE has made clear that all US passport holders are admitted, regardless of what stamps are on their passport, so my Israel stamp from 2012 wouldn’t be an issue.

The other two areas were of much greater concern. First, the UAE runs on inequality. The luxurious premium cabins that bloggers fawn over either don’t make money, or just get money from the richest of the rich. Yet the airlines get massive subsidies to provide these services just for the sake of image. As I learned first hand, as a coach passenger, there really isn’t anything special about Etihad coach travel. The airlines are held as the gold standard because they put showers in planes and fancy menus in their lounges, but the majority of people you meet in Abu Dhabi are poor. Very poor, and working hard. Some may say that they have a better standard of living than they would if they hadn’t left their homes and families to come work for rich Emiratis, businessmen, and spoiled brat bloggers who come to stay at luxury hotels, but that echoes the arguments that have always been historically made to defend what is essentially wage slavery. It also isn’t necessarily true; the laws to protect migrant workers are not very good. It apparently is common for domestic servants to come and work in the Emirates and surrender their passports to their employers immediately, being stuck inside the country. The society is not one “melting pot.” As I learned from reading the classified newspaper, racial and ethnic segregation is alive and well, and tolerated in rental ads.

Legal segregation in Abu Dhabi

Legal segregation in Abu Dhabi

The other area that gave me huge doubts is the human rights situation broadly. The UAE is a terrible place for free speech, for women, and for LGBT people. It is not a democracy, but pretty much a totalitarian theocracy. If there’s any doubt, photos of the Sheikh and his family dominate the landscape.

Big brother

Big brother

The State Department has summarized the UAE’s human rights situation as the following:

“The three most significant human rights problems were citizens’ inability to change their government; limitations on citizens’ civil liberties (including the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and internet use); and arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and lengthy pretrial detentions.
Other reported human rights problems included police and prison guard brutality. The government continued to interfere with citizens’ privacy rights, including increased arrests and detentions following individuals’ internet postings or commentary. There were limited reports of corruption; the government lacked transparency and judicial independence. Domestic abuse and violence against women remained problems. . . Noncitizens faced legal and societal discrimination. Legal and societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS and based on sexual orientation and gender identity remained problems. The government restricted worker rights. Trafficking in persons, mistreatment and sexual abuse of foreign domestic servants and other migrant workers, and discrimination against persons with disabilities remained problems, although the government took steps to prevent them.”

So, basically they fail on every issue. Still, there are decent arguments to make as to why the poor human rights record of a country shouldn’t keep you from going there. I think Gary of View From the Wing makes many of them in his recent thoughtful post:

“The more I think about it, though, the more I tend to believe that if we are aware of our surroundings, if we pay attention and learn and enrich ourselves through our travel, that may just be the very best way that we can contribute to improving the world and lives of the people we interact with along the way.
There are terrible things that governments do — such as providing weapons to oppressive regimes, giving governments the tools to abuse their citizens, such as propping up those regimes. Learning about the conditions in those countries, bringing that knowledge back home, undermining support for policies of a traveler’s government which support abusive governments, seems like a strong approach.”

But there’s a difference between traveling to a country with bad human rights practices – cognizant of the good and bad in that nation– and endorsing those practices, or endorsing the actors that perpetuate those practices.
Traveling to the Middle East can make this distinction difficult, since the flag carriers are owned by the states that perpetuate human rights violations. So when you read a blog post singing the praises of Etihad Airways, Emirates, or Qatar Airways, it is praising the governments of those countries. Since Etihad and Qatar Airways aren’t even profit generators, but vanity projects of their respective governments, their luxury cabins are the product of income inequality. This isn’t to say enjoying Etihad First Class necessarily prevents you from fully appreciating the situation on the ground, but it makes it very possible to travel without any awareness of real life in the places you visit. If you’re focused on how amazing the champagne is in a First Class lounge, or what upgrade you get at a hotel, it’s easy to put blinders on. I’ve been guilty of this myself, but one blogger, and one post in particular, has taken this to a new level.

While I was on my trip, Ben Schlappig, aka Lucky, of the blog One Mile at a Time, made a post entitled “Is it Safe to Travel to the UAE?”. I often find Ben’s blog ridiculous, as it is a view of the world from a 20-something who literally lives in luxury hotels and premium airplane cabins, complete with an enormous sense of entitlement and privilege. Sometimes I wonder if reading his blog makes me more likely to complain if I get bad service, because he seems to always get outrageously good service or to have a hotel or airline falling over itself to “make it right,” even if he is the one who screwed up. Ben’s audience is a lot of folks who (1) dream of luxury travel with little income like him, or (2) actually travel the way he does. Typically, I don’t care if these people are misled and want to read insane posts. But Ben’s post on the UAE was so misleading and factually incorrect that I was offended.

First, I’d take the position that “Is it Safe to Travel to the UAE?” is the wrong question to be asking. Crime is pretty low in the UAE—a benefit of Sharia — and I don’t see why most people would even think that safety was an issue. The only reason to think that the UAE is filled with civil unrest like Yemen or anti-American violence is a complete ignorance of world affairs—which I acknowledge probably isn’t rare for Ben’s readers. As Gary suggested in his blog, a far more thoughtful question is “Is it Right to Travel to the UAE?”

Now the question “Is it Safe to Travel to the UAE” is particularly relevant to one group of people – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.  To Ben, LGBT people should have no qualms on traveling to the UAE, though. He stated:

Are the laws on gays themselves appalling? Yes. Relatively speaking and in practical terms, is the UAE the most progressive in the Middle East? Absolutely. And I think they deserve some credit for that.

Where to begin? First of all, it is simply not true that laws relating to LGBT rights in the UAE are “the most progressive in the Middle East.” Spend 3 minutes on google and you could learn that. Putting aside Israel (although it is certainly in the Middle East), Jordan is far more progressive, and Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories are arguably slightly more progressive. The UAE is not particularly distinguishable from Bahrain or Oman. Yes, technically the UAE is not one of the 5 countries in the world that explicitly punishes homosexuality with the death penalty, though according to numerous sources, including the State Department, legal scholars debate whether the application of Sharia law would allow that punishment anyway.

In Abu Dhabi, sodomy is illegal, and can result in imprisonment of up to 14 years. “Cross-dressing” is also illegal. This isn’t a law that is just on the books and unenforced. In 2005, there was a widely reported hotel raid leading to an arrest of 26 young men for “homosexual practices” in Abu Dhabi. The Minister of Justice at the time said, “There will be no room for homosexual and queer acts in the UAE. Our society does not accept queer behaviour, either in word or in action.” The men were sentenced to five-year prison sentences, after a threat of experimental “curative” hormonal treatments.

This continues. In the State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report on the UAE, it noted “There were prosecutions for consensual same-sex activity during the year. At times the government subjected persons against their will to psychological treatment and counseling for consensual same-sex activity.” In addition, “[t]he government deported cross-dressing foreign residents and referred citizens to public prosecutors. Due to social conventions and potential persecution, LGBT organizations did not operate openly, nor were gay pride marches or gay rights advocacy events held. . . . There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination.” Finally, the State Department remarked that Kenyan press alleged that authorities in Dubai arrested a gay Kenyan by entrapping him through an on-line gay dating service. According to the claims, the Kenyan communicated with an undercover officer through the online dating service and authorities arrested him after arranging for a meeting.”

Last year, there were reports that the UAE, along with other Gulf Cooperation Countries, was going to impose medical tests to prevent gay people from entering the country.

“They deserve some credit.” Do they?

Practically speaking, yes, an LGBT visitor to the UAE is unlikely to be at risk so long as he or she does not express their sexuality on the streets. Apps like Grindr are used there, and there doesn’t seem to be a great fear from the nearly 100% foreign users. But that’s not something to give the UAE “credit” for, especially since lax enforcement is solely due to a desire to continue to attract Western dollars – not due to any acceptance of sexual minorities or a recognition that imprisoning people based on who they are and who they love is wrong. If LGBT people and allies give the UAE credit for simply not killing LGBT people, there’s no reason for the UAE to ever progress further.

For most LGBT people, the bar is higher than being able to be gay without bring executed. We want the freedom to be open about who we are and who we love, we want to be able to have a family and an authentic life. I’m fortunate to live and work in places where that’s a possibility. It saddens me that there are LGBT people who do not strive for that for themselves and others around the world. To gloss over the very real problems in the UAE, while making 5-10 posts to week on the First Class cabins of the UAE’s airlines, is outrageous and amoral. It is worse to say “they deserve some credit” than to not write about them at all.

Back to the main question, do I regret going? No. I think going allowed me to see how some of these issues play out in practice, and allows me to think about them more deeply. I don’t think my visit did much to prop up the Emirati government, and I tried to remember to tip service people well. I wasn’t there with a romantic partner, but if I were, I would’ve been afraid to express any public affection whatsoever. Sadly, I see no chance of this changing any time in the near future. I’m not sure what I can do to change that, but giving them “credit” certainly won’t.

One thought on “Thoughts on Abu Dhabi, Part 2: Ethical Travel, LGBT Rights in the UAE, and Why One Blogger Should Be Ashamed of Himself

  1. Pingback: Travel and Travel Blogging Are Political; Oman and Charlottesville – You Went Where???

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