Anti-gay sentiment shows limit of Gulf states’ liberal drive

Teachers returning for the new academic year in the United Arab Emirates were struck by a new bureaucratic demand. In a new code of conduct, one clause in particular jumped out: “refrain . . . from discussing gender identity, homosexuality or any other behaviour deemed unacceptable to UAE society”.

The directive has sent a chill through the teaching community in English-language schools, where many of the staff are from the UK and Ireland.

School management, responding to the perceived clampdown, have removed rainbow flags from classrooms and told teachers to remove rainbow wristbands. Children have been told that discussion of topics such as same-sex marriage and homosexuality is no longer allowed.

“Every time we walk into the classroom, we are worried now,” said one teacher.

For many, the new school directive was just the latest sign that the culture wars and clashes over identity politics in the west have arrived in the conservative Gulf states.

Last week, Saudi Arabia led all six Gulf states, including the UAE, in demanding that streaming group Netflix remove shows deemed un-Islamic. The call followed a local media campaign accusing Netflix of promoting homosexuality, a criminal offence in many countries in the region.

The clashes are particularly acute in the UAE, which has a big expatriate population. The government there has liberalised laws on alcohol and divorce to attract foreign workers but it also needs to be mindful of the concerns of conservative ethnic Emiratis who are fearful that homosexuality could be decriminalised next.

The UAE, one of the more liberal Gulf states, has largely adopted a “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” policy, tolerating gay people who hide their sexuality. Yet increasing promotion of equality in western companies and communities has forced the issue into the open.

Multinational executives have lobbied the government to decriminalise homosexuality in an effort to broaden the pool of employees willing to relocate to the UAE. An inclusive work culture, they argue, is also vital to attract and retain staff, especially in knowledge-based industries targeted by the government as part of its strategy to diversify the economy away from oil.

“For cultural and creative industries to flourish, one must ensure public liberties, personal freedoms, free access to private funding — and tolerance, including for LGBTQ rights,” said Mazen Hayek, a Dubai-based media consultant.

Last week, US law firm Baker McKenzie cut ties with senior UAE lawyer Habib Al Mulla over Twitter posts he made in relation to a viral video in which young women gave their thoughts about contemporary womanhood. In the posts, he had suggested that other Emirati women should sue the video makers for misrepresenting UAE society. Mulla, who comments on social and legal issues from his popular Twitter account, had also previously described homosexuality as “ugly”.

Baker McKenzie issued a press release signalling the end of its partnership with Mulla, saying it wanted “an inclusive work environment for all”.

Mulla refused to apologise for his comments, which he described as rooted in his religion. “As a Muslim, eastern culture here, this issue homosexuality is a no, no — society won’t accept it,” he said, echoing the views of many conservative Emiratis. “Live your own life, but don’t try to force that culture.”

The UAE brooks little dissent. As a result, it may be easier for citizens to voice outrage over homosexuality and other social issues than more overtly political topics, said Mira Al Hussein, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford university, referring to the normalisation of relations with Israel, unemployment and the rising cost of living.

“LGBTQ is a convenient and non-divisive topic for many Emiratis, which they can offload their rage on to without appearing to be making political statements or demands,” she said. “Many of these people expressing outrage on social media know they have the backing of key individuals in government.”

The societal backlash is also being felt by Dubai’s thriving underground gay community. “People travel across the region to party here because it has always been seen as a more tolerant safe haven,” said one gay resident. “You would see women dressed as men. Men in make-up. You name it.”

But the parties had dried up in recent months, with attendees afraid of sparking the interest of the authorities, the resident added.

In English-language international schools, teachers remain on edge, as conservative parents complain to the authorities over liberal attitudes towards homosexuality and gender identity.

One teacher was encouraged to leave after a pupil told their parents that they thought he was gay. Another received a fine for “cross dressing” when he wore clothes of a female literary character to celebrate world book day.

The situation, added the teacher who had voiced their worry, was “difficult for any educator”.

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