Can four openly gay guys from Tel Aviv who never hide their sexual orientation enjoy a vacation in Dubai? As I was relaxing on a direct flight I took with three of my friends to Dubai International Airport, I couldn't help but wonder: Would we be able to meet gay men in the seaside Emirati city without going underground? Would nonverbal flirting with a man wearing a kandura land you in jail? Does the gay hookup and dating app Grindr pose a risk to your personal safety? And which one of us really is Samantha?
There were other concerns, too: How much is there to enjoy in the “Las Vegas of the Middle East,” a city that, at least from the video guides on YouTube, looked like a cross between Hong Kong and Marfa? And the biggest question of all: How can you relax and enjoy yourself in a place where your sexual identity, which you’ve chosen to air after a long internal struggle, may put you right back in the closet and in the realm of taboo?
We settled into our spacious villa with a private beach in the Palm Island area (the price was reasonable, $933 a night for the four of us). After unpacking we had dinner at a nice fish restaurant that agreed to seat us at 11 P.M., and also gave us some demonstratively queer entertainment: A terrifying dancing fountain show with changing lights set to the kitchiest song in the history of the 21st century, “Let it Go” from the movie “Frozen.” This ballad, on the backdrop of the pink, purple and blue aquatic phalluses towering to great heights, showed us that while Dubai may not yet hold pride parades, at least when it comes to atmosphere, it’s all set.
I got to know Bilal (not his real name, like the rest of the names that appear in the story), a good friend who lives in Dubai, around a decade ago through mutual friends. His family, which is from Pakistan, is well known in the city. He returned there after 15 years in London. His British accent is polished.
Of the 15 men I talked with during one evening, eight offered me sex for money
I tried to understand why he moved from one of the greatest LGBT friendly cities in the world to a city that forbids him to be who he really is. He explained that the situation here isn’t as bad as we may think. He recently got out of a two-year relationship with a Lebanese guy. While the two of them couldn’t walk hand-in-hand on the street, the situation for straight couples isn’t so much different. His parents knew about his boyfriend, as did many of his close friends who live in Dubai. Practically speaking, the regime also knows about his private life, since surveillance is everywhere. Privacy, it seems, is not a sacred value in the Emirates, to say the least.
Bilal told me that he still misses London but if he had a choice, the first plane he would jump on would actually be to Tel Aviv, where he’s already been nine times. He will soon start promoting a joint tourism venture between the two cities. I pushed him a little and asked how much he misses the comfortable and free life London has to offer, from the LGBT perspective. “It’s clear that in London there’s more freedom, but it’s good for me here,” he said, and added a surprising fact: “In our living room, like in every other living room in Dubai, you can get Netflix and binge-watch ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”
And that’s when I got it. Television, and especially the imperialistic Netflix, changes the reality anywhere it invades. If the change doesn’t come through news broadcasts – and in Dubai it certainly won’t come from there, since that’s government-run – then it will show up through a queer show by the world’s greatest drag queen.
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We found a real drag kingdom at a rooftop bar on top of a central hotel which has a gay lineup every Friday night. We got there without a reservation, a mistake that cost us half an hour of waiting. After the wait, which provided us time to observe numerous gay men in too-tight jeans who do too many squats, we go in. Disco balls, comfortable couches, a mirrored bar – everything is supremely laid out and decorated. We got a table for four while in the background the best Christmas song ever, Maria Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” was playing. Any gayer than that and we’d faint.
I missed being able to dance with people like me. But half a minute into the song, a two-meter-tall security guard approached me. “No dancing!” he yelled. At first I thought this was my first encounter with explicit homophobia, but it turns out that the coronavirus restrictions in the city ban dancing. Another gin and tonic, some staring at a gay couple smoking a water pipe on the balcony, and we headed home.
COVID panic at the Disco
A somewhat less formal gay bar nearby was a pleasant surprise. While you need a reservation there, too, and the security guards make sure you don’t wander between tables too much because of the coronavirus, we managed to talk to the guys at the table next to us. Pretty soon it became clear that if there is a new Middle East, it’s embodied in Dubai. A table next to ours included Francois from Lebanon, Samir from Morocco, Mohammed from Egypt, and another friend, Ivan, an immigrant from Crotia.
A short conversation revealed that despite the relaxed atmosphere, there is no way you would see a couple kissing on the dance floor here. On the other hand, you can make a quick connection outside the hotel plaza where the bar is located and exchange phone numbers. We invited our new friends to our villa for drinks and a swim in the pool.
The following evening we met up again. The poolside conversations were totally apolitical. We were pleased with the opportunity to sit as regional neighbors and talk about what brought everyone to Dubai. During the conversation, enhanced with generous quantities of alcohol, the picture became clear: Immigrants to Dubai, particularly the gays among them, are often fleeing Arab or Eastern European countries where they had a much harder time. The wages in Dubai are higher and there is greater freedom for people to live their lives more or less out of the closet, far from their families’ watchful eye.
We find a real drag kingdom at a rooftop bar which has a gay lineup every Friday night
Samir, tall and rather shy, told me how he left his parents in Morocco and hasn’t seen them for almost two years. At some point the conversation drifted to Moroccan music. We played songs for Mimouna, the Moroccan holiday at the end of Passover, from the band Sfatayim, and then put on Shimon Buskila’s “Ya Mama.” There was silence. Everyone listened to the track and Samir, who misses his mother and understands every word, started tearing up. He translated some of the lyrics for us, his shining eyes signaling to us for the first time that it’s good that we came. See, we can finally be part of the same Levantine, people-loving space. It’s possible to have a simple conversation between neighbors who don’t have anywhere else to get together.
There’s another place for gays to meet that’s a lot less colorful but a lot more hectic: Grindr, the gay dating app. To use it in Dubai you have to download a VPN app, which costs around $10. Men from everywhere, with an emphasis on Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Morocco, will hurry to say hello (your being Israeli doesn’t interest anyone) and send you their nude pictures, as is customary on Grindr all over the world. From that perspective, it’s a totally universal community.
In our living room, like in every other home in Dubai, you can get Neflix and binge-watch ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’Bilal
It turns out to be much less pleasant when you start talking and realize that many are using the app to earn a living. Male prostitution in Dubai, like the female kind, has become sweeping and disturbing. Of the 15 men I talked with during one evening, eight offered me sex for money. I thanked them and sent them on their way, but not without considering the sad notion of very rich men buying sex from very poor ones. This isn’t unique to Dubai, but it’s much more obvious there than in Tel Aviv or European capitals.
From a five-day visit that was perhaps too short, Dubai looked like it was just recently unwrapped. It combines a Western eye with an Eastern aroma, but the roads and enormous interchanges, the impressive skyline and the elite restaurants don’t hide the fact that it is a very conservative, undemocratic place. The sheen and the cleanliness (just try to find a cigarette butt on the ground) don’t cover the dirt that no inspector can hide. And even a short stay in a place where you can’t express love in the street reminds me once again of how Tel Aviv, for all its complexity and mess, is a Middle Eastern princess that’s second to none.