The city of Prohibitions

Article published on Aug. 23, 2007
community published
Article published on Aug. 23, 2007
Before I came to Dubai I learnt, and accepted it as inevitability, that premarital sex, showing affection in public and drinking alcohol without a special drinking license was prohibited. When I came here, I learn that all of the above are actually quite acceptable in practice, only not in theory. Dubai is a morally liberal place that as far as the practice of (im)moral concepts is concerned.
It cannot endorse such principles in theory, because it needs to keep its cultural integrity as a Muslim country.

Then, however, I learnt about the other kind of prohibitions. Things that are allowed neither in theory, nor in practice. To list the two that particularly bothered me: (1) Skype, (2) Flickr. What's interesting, however, is that YouTube is allowed (both in theory and in practice).

Skype. The basic means of survival for international pilgrims. The means of communication for separated families who cannot afford costly international phones. If you have ever lived abroad, you know what "Skype" means. It's proximity, it's comfort, it's love. 80% of Dubai population have lived abroad - they are expatriates. With the ban that entered into life on April 16, all VoIP communication became illegal. Thou shall not use your computer to call the phones all over the globe. Thou shall instead use the expensive services of the UAE communication monopole Etisalat. If to lessen the pain of being far away from your dear ones you thought of looking at their pictures on Flickr, you will be disappointed. This website is blocked too. Such is the law of the United Arab Emirates.

Why does the economically flourishing, modern, economically liberal (so the fame goes) Dubai would decide to block such two vital services? About Flickr, the situation seems easier. It is said that some images there qualify as pornography (though I personally never noticed any such images). It follows that the Islamic government must protect the morals of its Islamic citizens and prohibit such an evil service. Ban(g)-Ban(g) and it's banned. There is, however, a heated debate so as to why is Skype prohibited in Dubai. There are two main theories, one pointing to political reasons, another one pointing to economic ones.

Political theory claims that the UAE government likes to monitor the content of all information exchanges done through means of telecommunication, and Internet communication is practically impossible to screen for content. The economic theory presents the loss of revenue by a national company Etisalat to Internet telephony, such as Skype that led to the ban of this service in the UAE. It is not, however, an "either/or" situation. It is most likely that both factors came to play why making the decision about blocking Skype.

Now I just wanted to make a personal testimony on what the effects of this ban are. I am devastated. I cannot talk to my friends. I will be basically off-line for my journalism job, unable to conduct interviews over the phone. I am deeply disappointed, because I did not expect Dubai to be a place where such a ban would be enforced. And I am in deep disbelief, because I thought that in a business-friendly, modern and liberal place like Dubai the deep economic implications and financial losses for local businesses of such a decision would be identified and understood.

Nonetheless. I am patient. I am understanding. I try to look beyond the cultural paradigm of the Western culture where I was brought up and seek to understand those different then me. Trust me, however, than in cases where the differences of another culture strike right at my heart it is not an easy task...