Sunday, 16 May 2010

Observer - Sex Shock or Crap Shlock?

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Two women walk pa...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
This article in today's Observer (the Sunday newspaper of The Guardian) did rather strike a chord. I'm not much of a Dubai apologist but have to confess that having lived here for the past 17 years (I've been travelling around the Middle East for the past 24 and yes, thank you, I do feel old) the old place must be doing something right to keep me here.

I'm not about to set myself up ready to leap to Dubai's defence as everyone points out how crap it is. I spend enough time pontificating in various media already without adding 'official apologist' to my job title. But the Observer piece by 'William Butler', apparently recently returned after four years in Dubai, really does take the digestive.

There is a thriving sex trade in Dubai and I have seen it with my own two eyes. A great deal more could be done to address said trade, without a doubt. But if you really clamped down on that trade, along with many other trades in the city's margins and hideaways, you'd start to peck away at the principles that make Dubai a pleasant place to be in - that we're all pretty much left alone to do whatever we want as long as we're reasonably discreet and don't take it too far. That has always been at the very core of the Dubai I have been travelling to and living in since the eighties. They like to call it 'laissez faire'. I'm not arguing that this is perfection, but it's a damn sight better than an across-the-board 'No, you can't'.

So it's not that the piece is wholly inaccurate, it's just that it's peppered with silly errors, sweeping statements of fact that are unsustainable and unfounded assertions. So a piece that could have been a well-argued, explosive investigation into the trade and its many victims is, instead, a badly cobbled together and sloppy tissue of baseless assertion. What a wasted opportunity.

'I asked her what she did for a living. "You know what I do," she replied. "I'm a whore."
I know this is one man's word, but I wouldn't write that line into one of my books.

"It was obvious that every woman in the place was a prostitute. And the men were all potential punters, or at least window-shoppers."
Every woman a prostitute and all the men punters? In a five star hotel bar? Must be a different bar to all the ones I've gone to over the years... How is a prostitute 'obvious' in this way? The burden of proof here is met by some bloke's idea of what a prostitute looks like? What next from the Observer? "It was clear they were all gay"?

"Dubai is a heaving maelstrom of sexual activity that would make the hair stand up on even the most worldly westerner's head."
I'm really, really sorry but I must have been living an unusually cloistered life, a 'heaving maelstrom'? What have I been missing out on all these years?

"It is known by some residents as "Sodom-sur-Mer".
No it's not. Certainly not by anyone I know. Maybe to William Butler and his best friend Yeats. It's a daft epithet and too wooden to be popular.

"Western girls fall for handsome, flash Lebanese men"
This is simply awful. Is the Observer telling us that Dubai, the place where young people from all around the world come to seek opportunity,  is responsible for inter-cultural relationships? Pity the poor ugly, boring Lebanese men, too...

"most of the "romance" in Dubai is paid-for sex, accepted by expatriates as the norm"
This is absolute rubbish. Quantify 'most of the romance'. Nobody I know of accepts paid-for-sex as the norm. Why is this man allowed to assert such complete tosh in a national newspaper?

"Virtually every five-star hotel has a bar where "working girls" are tolerated, even encouraged, to help pull in the punters"
More baseless assertion. We aren't told how hotels encourage prostitutes to help pull in the punters. Most hotels are more than happy to give incentives to FaceCard holders, Emirates staff. But encouraging prostitutes? How, precisely?

"it would be hard to take into account the "casual" or "part-time" sex trade. One recent estimate put the figure at about 30,000 out of a population of about 1.5 million"
Whose estimate? I've got no problem with the number, crumbs, double it if you want - fill your boots. But prove it - at least have a source or a credible figure quoted. Again, we wouldn't let a press release out with that kind of fact standing up a story and I wouldn't expect it to last ten minutes out there if we did. Why the hell is a respected paper running this sort of thing?

"Although strictly illegal under United Arab Emirates' and Islamic law, it is virtually a national pastime"
Virtually a national pastime? WTF? We are, surely, losing the plot here...

"A few drinks with the lads on a Thursday night, maybe a curry, some semi-intoxicated ribaldry, and then off to a bar where you know "that" kind of girl will be waiting. In the west, peer group morality might frown on such leisure activities, but in Dubai it's as normal as watching the late-night movie."
No it's not. This is rubbish. And, again, it's uninformed opinion.

"Middle-aged men in responsible jobs – accountants, marketeers, bankers – who for 10 months of the year are devoted husbands, transform in July and August into priapic stallions roaming the bars of Sheikh Zayed Road."
This is amazing. I am quite sure that some of the 'summer bachelors' do indeed go astray, but this image of a city filled with 'Priapic stallions roaming the bars' every summer is bunkum. Lonely drunks, maybe.

"In my experience, many men will be unfaithful if they have the opportunity and a reasonable expectation that they will not be found out."
Why superimpose your experience of morality on everyone around you, particularly when it is quite so egregious? This 'experience' says more about the author than we perhaps need to know...

"Above all, there is opportunity. There is the Indonesian maid who makes it apparent that she has no objection to extending her duties, for a price; the central Asian shop assistant in one of the glittering malls who writes her mobile number on the back of your credit card receipt "in case you need anything else"; the Filipina manicurist at the hairdresser's who suggests you might also want a pedicure in the private room."
Singling out the nationalities like this is also telling. I have never heard of an Indonesian maid who extends her duties - certainly not willingly. I know one Sri Lankan maid who'd probably give you a good smack for even suggesting anything of the sort. And as far as manicurists (does she have to be Filipina, Observer?) go, those I know would be hurt and offended at the very idea.

"Cyclone, a notorious whorehouse near the airport, was closed down a few years back, but then it really did go too far – a special area of the vast sex supermarket was dedicated to in-house oral sex."
This is clearly crap. Cyclone was a nightclub, albeit one increasingly notorious for the 'working girls' to be found there. But it was not a whorehouse - and it was closed before 'William Butler' came to the UAE. So he is just (as he does much of the time) reporting overheard tittle-tattle rather than researched or sustainable fact. In the latter days I avoided Cyclone, it was never really my kind of place (being a middle aged Priapus every summer, you understand), but I'd love to see the evidence for an area of 'the vast sex supermarket' (whaat?) being dedicated to anything of the sort. And let us not forget, Cyclone. was. shut. down.

It's simply not good enough. This is not great journalism, this is not investigative reporting. It's a poorly hacked together, ill-informed job from a freelance former expat that a lazy editor has just unquestioningly jacked into the system to fill a page or two and it is the sort of thing that people here will point to when arguing that media freedom is a bad thing.

It's interesting that comments are not enabled on the online version. The Observer not willing to countenance another wave of clarification of the sort that expats have helpfully contributed to previous Dubai bunkum pieces?

I'd love to see this shameful rubbish referred to the PCC...

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AmazingSusan said...

Absolutely AWESOME piece of journalistic writing to which Mr. Butler's sensationalistic garbage doesn't hold a candle.

Bravo Alexander!!

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Well if only facts could be so clearly established from outset!

Observer page 23, is not my idea of justifying such an awkward response in blog or through some of the hypocritical, possibly even puritanical comments I have read on twitter today.

As he may have got some facts wrong, as a writer and not a journalist, we must forgive your error of Grauniad for Observer.

Anonymous said...

Alexander, great piece of writing mate but let's be honest what he said wasn't too wrong. True he exaggerated the facts n figures were randomly cooked up but sex trade in dubai is really embarrassing & shameful considering it is an islamic country. So let's give benefit of doubt to mr "butler" that all he was trying to do was unravel the hypocrisy in the country where coupled can be jailed for a kiss but sex trade is being so openly allowed.

Sand Watcher said...

Great response.

No one can deny that the issues highlighted exist.

But what is more disturbing is the various tweets going around justifying "weasel journalism" if you may as semantics..

And that too from other journalists..god help us all if that is what journalism is on its way to become..

Anonymous said...

I'll pay a thousand dirhams to the first person who can provide me with Mr Butler's real name and a photo of him that clearly shows his face.

Then we'll show him a bit of investigative journalism.

The Ego said...

Interesting write-up. I was quite amused to read that bit about everyone in the hotel being a prostitute. The first thing I thought was, how could he know unless he went and asked every single woman there?!?!

Definitely won't be referred to the PCC/toothless watchdog. They won't accept third-party complaints and since the writer hasn't spoken about a particular person or particular hotel, no one can refer it to them. Remember Jan Moir? Or last week's insanity where they didn't do anything about Loaded using a photo a 15-year-old uploaded to Bebo (yes she was stupid to upload a private pic online but don't think that gave a magazine the right to publish it)? The PCC does nothing abt articles like this.

shaahima said...

Alex isn't denying a sex-trade that we all know exists; what he is defending is Dubai's right to be assessed by a reputed publication like The Guardian without baseless, judgemental hyperbole.

A 'designer bar' of a 'glitzy 5-star hotel' filled solely with prostitutes and 'potential punters??'
Clearly you had downed one too many that night mate. You were seeing stars.

Mr Hobnob said...

It's the Obby, Macca, not the Graun.

Other than that, I rather fancy you have smote the nail full square with the suggestion that this shallow, vacuous personal commentary piece tells us more about "W.B" - no prizes for guessing who that may be - than it does about sex in the city.

Clearly, "W.B" has a fastidious knowledge of the fleshpots of the world. It's a pity he didn't take the time to visit the "old skool" hangouts.

Anonymous said...

We all know the media is censored here (DXB and the Middle East), so real investigative journalism doesn't exist or won’t be allowed to exist. So what this guy has managed to find out about the visas etc is proof that he has done some homework. Get over your political correctness and pettiness and you see the underlying argument of the article rings true. Personally, I know a few Brit women who love there Leb men and we all know Cyclone was practically a brothel. It’s also obvious that hi-class hookers will frequent 5-star hotels. Maybe things back in your hey-day were much more innocent, but this is very much the Dubai of today. Get over yourself

alexander... said...

Changed Guardian for Observer.

Paraglider said...

And of course some of the 'girliest' bars in Dubai are also among the cheapest for beer, boast the best live bands, have relaxed dress codes, offer good food at sensible prices; in short, don't have their noses up their five-star @sses. People go where they choose for their own reasons. WB's Guardian piece is an exercise in (mis)judgment.

Marcia said...

Crap Shlock.

As I said over at Hisham Wyne...

I found the article irritating in its sweeping flourishes about “dusky” maidens “heaving maelstroms” and suchforth. But I found it even more irritating in its glorification of prostitution. The sex trade in Dubai must be, as elsewhere, an exceptionally dangerous business for women. And it must be yet more dangerous for women who go abroad to practice as foreign laborers.

Glossing over this with titillating details about positions and wives who go “home for the summer” makes my hair stand on end.

As you say: “Singling out the nationalities like this is also telling. I have never heard of an Indonesian maid who extends her duties – certainly not willingly.”

Sure, there might be a maid who does. But surely many more in the not-willing camp.

But, after all: Sex is all fun, prostitution is a game, and (foreign) maids will do it for just a little extra cash!

Wonderful ideas to pound into Observer-readers’ heads.

Paraglider said...

Apologies for furthering the Guardian/Observer error!

alexander... said...

No probs, PG. The Obs is a Guardian product and the website's not strongly flagged up as Obs rather than Guardian - it's even hosted on

Guardian/Obs. It's not a whole world of difference.

motherinferiordubai said...

Nothing fresh to add per se - but the article is correct in it's high end hotel assertion. Sorry but true - many, many of these expensive bars are full of Pro's - it get the residents in...
And yes - see it very regularly with my own eyes.

Rootless said...

See Alex, what it seems to me you have done here is simply the converse of what you excoriate Mr. "Butler" for doing in his piece. He has taken a very valid proposition - Dubai is hypocritical for prosecuting insubstantial indecency infractions when it is riven with prostitution - and undermined it with annoying embellishments, ludicrous generalisations and lazy stereotyping. Yet as with the Johan Hari article, the reason so many hackles are up, in my view, is because the article does ring so true. You have rather hysterically attempted to dissect every loose phrase of his piece without addressing it's fundamental and, to my mind, irresistible premise. Hookers are lasciviously prowling all over Dubai. If you haven't been (er) waylaid by them perhaps it's because you've been focussed on negotiating your snicket back to Sharjah early enough every evening to avoid the rush to the fleshpots. One reason I hate going out in Dubai is because I so frequently get propositioned in the most unlikely of places (Lifco on SZR anyone?). Discrete my giddy aunt (in whose company I have also been hit up).

And it doesn't help your case that your own fact-checking is deficient: a quick Google search confirmed my recollection that the Cyclone was very much open in the last 4 years having closed (with a bang and a gimp, or two) only in 2007. Said search will also uncover plenty of references to the notorious "dark area" in the Cyclone.

Mind you, in his circus of the national stereotypes, Butler seems to have inexplicably missed the recent craze (so I am told!!) for Eritreans..

alexander... said...

Rootless: My clear point is not that this trade does not exist, or that it is not of scale. I said I had seen it with my own eyes - I've been to the Arif, Zodiac, Panorama, SeaShell and plenty more besides 'em.

My actual point is, I think, clear from the post. The article is badly written and packed with stupid and unsustainable assertions and does a disservice to journalism.

So Cyclone closed three years ago and not four years ago. Why bring it up three years later in a piece at all?

And why refer to it as a brothel when it was not a brothel, but a nightclub? Notorious, infamous, packed with hookers - I'm not arguing any of that, but the FACT is that it was a nightclub.

I would like to have seen a better, soundly researched piece that brought light to this explosive topic. That would have been worth reading. I already KNOW everything in that story, because it contains nothing more than wild assertion, tittle-tattle and sensationalist language. It contains a great deal less new insight or fact than an average evening's conversation between friends.

It's a typical cheap freelance hack-job by an anonymous writer (Why IS he anonymous? Ashamed of the work?).

And it ran in a leading UK daily newspaper. I do find that shocking.

marryam h said...

What takes me aback in this piece of *journalistic* writing is Mr. Butler's entire lack of research or pretense of it. The impression he gives is of a middle-aged man who has propped himself at one of Dubai's bars and observed the goings-on with a jaundiced eye. His opinions of many nationalities of the world: Indonesian, Filipino, Russian etc is, in this age of political correctness, outrageous.

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Sorry Alexander but your sanctimonious comments about journalism just do not wash!

I chose not to query your facts "date of cyclone closure" but your dismissal of Observer as "It's not a whole world of difference." suggests that you have no knowledge of English newspaper history.

You write of expecting research and even now you suggested in your last comment that Observer is a daily newspaper.

If you are a journalist then be one, if PR, and raising your profile for the benefit of SpotOnPR, then be that quite clearly.

Having you and certain other bloggers appearing to be the face of Dubai is one sided and inaccurate, but no doubt the impressionable will succumb to your collective, yet misleading lures!

Rootless said...

Alex, you say:
"My actual point is, I think, clear from the post. The article is badly written and packed with stupid and unsustainable assertions and does a disservice to journalism."

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But it's still not fundamentally wrong or inaccurate, despite all the flaws.

So why the over-wrought response to such a "cheap freelance hack-job" comprising your longest post (not related to some infernal whirligig geekery) in many a month?

And while Butler's hagiography may offer no insight to those of us routinely badgered by bevies of Belorusian beauties, perhaps it might to your average beardy sandal-wearing Van Morrison-listening polytechnic-lecturing Observer reader in Salford. (Stereotyping gets a bit addictive I'm afraid..).

My guess is that in attracting disproportionate reaction from sources in Dubai, Mr. Butler will have achieved most of what he set out to do.

alexander... said...


Sanctimonious? How so?

The Observer is a weekly, Sunday newspaper. Agreed. You are being pedantic beyond belief in picking on my word 'daily'. If that's the one thing you'll take from this debate, then poor you.

Of course I expect research from a national newspaper of the stature and weight of The Observer. As I should. If I make errors in this small blog, they are usually corrected, one of the delights of the Internet. Sadly, The Observer chose not to allow comments to its piece so that the inaccuracies and baseless assertions made in this piece could be corrected in a similar manner.

I don't have to be utterly infallible to be able to criticise a major news organisation's accuracy, or lack of it.

I am ceratinly not a journalist and don't pretend to be one. You're in danger of mixing up your Js and Bs there. I am a PR guy and most certainly have never disguised that fact. I am also a writer and I haven't disguised that, either. But quite what I am has no bearing whatsoever on my right to have, and to express, an opinion.

I also have not set myself up to be 'the face of Dubai' and cannot for the life of me see why you would bestow such an honour on me.

alexander... said...

Oh, and while we're talking about this, another thing. 'Notorious whorehouse' The Cyclone was nowhere NEAR the airport! The building still stands, marked clearly as The Cyclone, behind the American Hospital.

I missed that one this morning...

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Sorry Alexander, but it is your "holier than thou attitude", along with some of our fellow commentators, which belittles all your previous non-partisan output.

When this blog piece was first published you had the temerity to come back to me and deny it was the Observer, so blinded have you become by your righteousness.

I had to copy and paste to prove it was Observer, and now you further highlight your comprehension error by wondering if my query relates to "daily"!

Please dismount from your static high-horse and acknowledge that there is no hill.

What Butler wrote of is reality, along with the other great convention city of the world, Las Vegas, it is all part of the complex recipe for business success.

Excellent PR for an Observer piece tucked away on page 23!

Luke said...

I find all the arguments above rather tedious.

I am not all shocked that this activity is rife here. What is more shocking is the intolerance to other harmless activities such as a couple kissing in public, an expat being drunk, a gardener in public parks stealing a glance at a passer-by etc..

The inconsistency is at best infuriating. But the tendency for prosecutors to believe the muslim word over the non-muslim makes me fear for my own liberty and rights. For all you people who frequent these kind of places, (even if you are just window shopping - "Honest guv, I was only looking!"), I hope you understand the risks you are taking. Maybe I am being naive, but if you can end up in the slammer for sharing a hotel room with your fiancee, I dread to think what the punishment may be if you get caught on the night they decide on a clampdown. I hope the reward is worth the risk.....

Harsha said...

Brilliant. And on behalf of Dubai - THANK YOU.

This just feels like (Butler) ' one reads what I write.. maybe of I compile all the recent interesting speculative articles running in the International media about a popular middle east city (country for some), take it up one notch...SOME one would notice me!

the real nick said...

Personally I don't believe a word written in the Guardian anyway, New Labour arsewipe that it is.

Having said that I found the article by and large correct on most counts, if a bit generalizing. There's no denying that the article's juxaposition of Dubai's idiosyncratic attitudes to a kissing couple and prostitution is spot on.

Paraglider said...

Oh well, since this thread's still running, here's another tuppence-worth. I think what most irritated me about WB's piece was that in a very real sense, he doesn't know what he's talking about. By which I mean that nowhere in his article is there evidence that he has ever had a sensible conversation with any of these working girls. To him, they are not people. This is evidenced by the crass ethnic stereotyping that pervades the whole piece.

I lived for six months in the Paranormal (hence the blog). It's actually a very comfortable hotel, provided you're on a higher floor, well away from the night clubs. Jockeys Pub was my local. Every one of these women has a human story to tell. Most are supporting one or more dependent relatives back home. Quite often a daughter whose mere gender (in a one-child-per-family regime) was enough to cause the husband to walk out. Other times it's ageing parents. I met ex-National squad athletes dropped unceremoniously when their performance waned. I've met many who are paying a son or daughter's passage through college. Others come from families where education was only for the boys, and so have no qualifications whatsoever, except native intelligence, and that often in abundance. Perhaps the most bizarre was the one time aspiring ballerina whose company had no use for her when her feet grew too big.

For many, perhaps most, what they are seeking is security. A surprising number end up in longterm relationships as girlfriends, fiancees, wives. And here I'm not talking about the 'trophy' wife with the 30-year age gap, but many sensible, stable success stories. For the less fortunate, their only possible security is money and when they've made enough, they go home. I for one will not censure them for their sacrifice.

Up market, of course, it's entirely different. There you'll find the five-star girls in the five-star lounges, usually asking seven-star prices. They're mostly doing very nicely, thank you. They've made a career choice and are following it through. Anyone silly enough to support them deserves to be taken for a ride.

But why the surprise? The five-star world is a rip-off in all other aspects. Why should sex be any different?

Where WB is correct of course is in pointing out that the entire scene is sanctioned by the authorities. One only has to look at Doha to see how easily and quickly the civic authorities can act to control and contain, if not eliminate, prostitution, if they want to. Dubai doesn't.

Phillipa said...

love the image of priapic stallions galloping around Sodom-sur-mer

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Quite a well reasoned riposte to the histrionic responses! ;-)

alexander... said...

An anonymous commenter came on last night and left segments from two articles that represented 'real' journalism on this issue.

I've deleted the two comments simply because I don't want the blog getting totally taken over by those searching for the underlying issue - that's not my argument here, it's the quality of the journalism (regardless of the issue) that got me going.

However, I am happy to share the two links and let you pop off there and take a read of pieces that are a great example of what The Observer should be aspiring to instead of the lazy piece it ran with.

Link 1

Link 2 in uk said...

ur defence is shit and no sense just like Dubai...Enjoy slavery live there and soon u will get deported from overtaking local guy's car.

Harsha said...

^ k, then.

Need some closure?

sam said...

True, it is sloppy, clearly not fact-driven journalism, and should have been a much more accurate and telling article. But I think you are a bit harsh on it nevertheless.

I would immediately adhere to the first part of the title (though not limiting it to sex) with a proviso, puting 'every bar' in the title is going a bit far.

You are right in pointing to the lack of facts, of evidence, and some unnecessary exaggeration, but you do seem to agree that the overall picture this man has of Dubai (and the UAE in general) is not that far from the truth. Replacing 'every' in the title and throughout the paper by 'many' or 'most' would certainly help.

So bearing this in mind, I think people outside the ME need to know these kinds of things, and I would argue that the observer did more good than ill in publishing this.

As far as the 'laissez-faire' is concerned, I think its scope has already been greatly diminished during the past 5 years, but sadly, the authorities have been more concerned with limiting the mobility and privacy of the people living here than dealing with the more profound social and environmental flaws on which Dubai is built.

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