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T he bosomy blonde in a tight, low-cut evening dress slid on to a barstool next to me and began the chat: Where are you from? How long are you here? Where are you staying? I asked her what she did for a living. As I looked around the designer bar on the second floor of the glitzy five-star hotel, it was obvious that every woman in the place was a prostitute. And the men were all potential punters, or at least window-shoppers. It was better if I was staying in the luxurious hotel where we were drinking, she said, but if not she knew another one, cheaper but "friendly".
I turned down the offer. This was not Amsterdam's red-light district or the Reeperbahn in Hamburg or a bar on Shanghai's Bund. This was in the city centre of Dubai , the Gulf emirate where western women get a month in prison for a peck on the cheek; the Islamic city on Muhammad's peninsula where the muezzin's call rings out five times a day drawing believers to prayer; where public consumption of alcohol prompts immediate arrest; where adultery is an imprisonable offence; and where mall shoppers are advised against "overt displays of affection", such as kissing.
Ayman Najafi and Charlotte Adams, the couple recently banged up in Al Awir desert prison for a brief public snog, must have been very unlucky indeed, because in reality Dubai is a heaving maelstrom of sexual activity that would make the hair stand up on even the most worldly westerner's head. It is known by some residents as "Sodom-sur-Mer". Beach life, cafe society, glamorous lifestyles, fast cars and deep tans are all things associated with "romance" in the fog-chilled minds of Europeans and North Americans.
And there is a fair amount of legitimate "romance" in Dubai. Western girls fall for handsome, flash Lebanese men; male visitors go for the dusky charms of women from virtually anywhere.
Office and beach affairs are common. But most of the "romance" in Dubai is paid-for sex, accepted by expatriates as the norm, and to which a blind eye is turned — at the very least — by the authorities.