As a Canadian journalist heading to the Middle East to work for a local newspaper, I expected to face some censorship. But I got more than what I bargained for when I left my post in April as a Metro News copy editor in Toronto, taking up a four-month-long stint as a city reporter for the Khaleej Times, an English-language newspaper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It began with paragraphs of text conspicuously missing from a story I wrote, citing reports that the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh, the highest authority on Islamic affairs in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian Peninsula (where the UAE is located.)
“The grand mufti is off limits,” one of the editors told me when I approached him, with my story in shambles.
I quickly learned that the mufti wasn’t the only subject matter I was to never write about.
The UAE’s territorial dispute with Iran — located across the Persian Gulf — over the ownership of several islands also led to a clampdown on stories.
Suddenly, we weren’t allowed to call the body of water straddling the UAE the Persian Gulf anymore, as it has been referred to for more than 2,000 years.
It’s the Arabian Gulf.
And punishment for misusing the term was swift: we’d be likely fired and subsequently deported as everyone in the newsroom was an expatriate at the time. Unfortunately, a web editor who accidentally let the term Persian Gulf pass through on an online story was put on leave without pay.
I didn’t see him in the newsroom again.
If getting rid of the online editor didn’t hit home the message, an email — written in all caps — sent out by the executive editor (also an expatriate) to the entire newsroom made it clear to “NEVER EVER USE THE PERSIAN GULF. It is always ARABIAN GULF.”
The email went on to say that “nothing derogatory about the UAE should be allowed to appear at any cost” in the online comments section of the newspaper.
Reporters were also told to “not write stories that will damage the image of the UAE.”
I was stunned.
It had only been a bit over a month since my move to Dubai and here I was feeling like Winston from George Orwell’s 1984.
I began seeing Dubai in a different light while driving home that day.
Everything had an Orwellian aura to it, from Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed’s massive portraits plastered across the city, to the unflinching and often forced love the majority of Emiratis have for their country’s leaders.
This archaic sense of freedom of expression sharply contrasts Dubai’s over-the-top modernity, which is characterized by superlatives.
The world’s biggest mall and tallest building are located in Dubai, not to mention the plethora of glistening skyscrapers rising out of the desert.
But while the city’s appearance has launched it well into the 21st century, its lack of freedom of speech leaves a void that makes you wonder if all the glitz is nothing more than a mirage in the desert.
Facts about the UAE and Dubai
Alcohol is served in most tourist hot spots and you often hear the Islamic call to prayer not far from the blaring sound of the many nightclubs in Dubai.
Although there is no legal dress code in the UAE, there has been a recent push for more stringent rules on ‘appropriate public attire.’ It’s recommended for women to keep arms covered up to your elbows, avoid low-cut tops, and wear skirts below the knee.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon and a kiss on the lips can lead you to the police station.
But while the UAE is conservative compared to the West, it’s noticeably progressive than its neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Women are allowed to drive in the UAE.