WEIGHT: 54 kg
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It was November and I had just arrived in Dubai after an eight hour flight from London. Although I had grown up in the United Arab Emirates, that day I was merely passing through, and I had a few hours before catching my next flight. I went in search of a drink and soon found myself in a multi-story, racially themed brothel camouflaged as a series of hotel bars.
In the basement, where the All-Star Filipino House Band played their Bryan Adams covers, a large crowd of Chinese prostitutes in their shiny sleeveless dresses squirmed uneasily in their seats under bright blue lights, nervously eyeing the older Indian businessmen leering at them through their whiskers. The next flight of stairs led to a floor of Uzbek women, while the top floor belonged to a modest group of Russian prostitutes.
All were kept neatly separate, of course, in the tradition of informal apartheid the Gulf, ruled by petroleum currency, have mastered. Lily approached me as I was served my first draft. She had been in Dubai for four years and unlike many of her friends, she was keen to stay.
She was negotiating a renewal of her three-year residence visa with her Emirati sponsor and needed the extra cash. That would have been impossible. Over the years, the UAE has consistently attempted to appear as family-friendly as Disneyland even though its Federal penal code is impressively draconian. So-called offenses such as adultery, unmarried cohabitation, kissing in public, being gay or giving someone the finger can lead to immediate deportation, prison sentences and hefty fines, but while prostitution itself is punishable by prison terms of up to five or ten years, it is available and rarely prosecuted, which is certainly bizarre for an orthodox Muslim country.
The myth is centered on Sheikh Zayed, who ruled the UAE from to , and who led his people out of miserable 18th century conditions by wisely employing his oil revenue. Inviting foreigners from all corners of the world to help Emiratis build a first-class welfare state in a single generation, Zayed laid out the plans for the island-city of Abu Dhabi, my hometown, lining it with wide highways and drip-irrigated gardens.