Dubai: Where morality and modernity coexist

Armstrong Williams | 1/31/2019, 12:50 p.m.
When I arrived in Dubai two week ago as the guest of billionaire business mogul Khalaf Al Habtoor, I expected ...
Armstrong Williams

When I arrived in Dubai two week ago as the guest of billionaire business mogul Khalaf Al Habtoor, I expected to witness the opulence and luxury for which the United Arab Emirates have become renowned. What I did not expect, however, is to find an advanced, modern society with serious ambitions toward global leadership. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the burning questions I had was one that many of my fellow Americans also shared: How could we proceed with our close relationship with our Arab brothers and sisters in the wake of the publicized murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this past October? Surely America, which has espoused and actively promoted human rights around the world, would have questions about why a journalist was so brazenly and brutally killed in a diplomatic consulate in a foreign country.

As I began to explore the question with colleagues in the Arab media, a much more complicated picture began to emerge. Although the crime against a fellow journalist was widely condemned in the Arab media, many Arabs also felt that the tragedy was being used to embarrass them and paint them as a backward society. It was not fair, they said to me during our frank discussions, that Khashoggi’s killing continued to make front page news in the Western media, when there are hundreds of thousands of other tragedies involving innocents and journalists. They believed that when embarrassing instances involving rogue U.S. soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Graib prison in Iraq were revealed to the world, most Arabs understood that these actions were the actions of a few rogue soldiers, not a testament to the character of the American people. They only asked to be treated similarly.

Furthermore, they asked why the Khashoggi affair is being judged in the media in the first place. Saudi Arabia, they said, has a robust legal system and was conducting its own investigation and trials into the matters. They are more than capable of bringing the guilty parties to justice. Although certain facts are known, such as Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never emerged alive, many facts remain to be discovered. What was the motive for the crime? Did the Turkish authorities have advanced notice that Khashoggi’s life might be in danger? If so, did they have a responsibility to warn him or intervene?

Of particular importance, however, is the fact that relations among the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been mutually beneficial to all involved. The U.S. has benefited economically from having access to the region’s vast energy resources and investment in the U.S. The region has benefited from the security arrangements put in place by the U.S. government that has afforded them peace and prosperity for the better part of a century. The notion that it could all be put in jeopardy because of the tragic crime against one person seemed odd and reckless, given what is at stake for the region and the world.

The Arab perspective on news, information and the media is tailored around Arab values—the values of family, morality and rule of law. Unlike in America, where we have the First Amendment that protects journalists from government interference, the Arabs see the media as a political actor. They hold the highest standards of reporting to provable facts and have very strict laws against publishing false and misleading information. From their perspective, these restrictions help hold the media to a higher standard of reporting of facts in a balanced way.

This view also extends to almost all other parts of Arab society. Their society is held together by a strong sense of moral and family values that start at the household level and go all the way up to the legal and political system of the country. Dubai, for example, has been compared with Las Vegas because of its opulence and luxury. But in almost all other respects, it is the complete opposite. There is almost no crime in Dubai, no drugs, no alcohol and no pornography, and everyone is treated with dignity and respect. The reality is that women are protected; there is very little sexual harassment or child abuse. The society strictly enforces moral values and insists that everyone adheres to them.

Although their approach might be widely criticized in the West, in many respects it is the envy of the world in terms of achieving a society of peace, civility and prosperity. We might criticize their rule of law, but it works when people adhere to the standard instead of practicing moral relativism. Seeing the fruits of morality in Dubai makes one wonder whether our society here in the West might have gone too far in terms of accommodating immoral behavior to preserve the mantle of “freedom.”

It is truly remarkable that Dubai and the other emirates have managed to build modern and robust societies that reflect their own values of moral excellence. Americans who admire their society should keep that in mind and try and consider whether there are lessons to be learned here at home.