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United Arab Emirates police look for unmarried couples living together

Police in Sharjah having been going door-to-door this week hunting for couples living together without benefit of a marriage license.

“We managed to find one couple, an Arab man and an Asian woman, illegally staying together. The couple also had two children. One was 2 years old and the other one was 4,” Brig. Musa al-Naqbi, a Sharjah police official told The National newspaper.

Sharjah, one of the seven city-statelets that make up the United Arab Emirates, serves as a kind of bedroom community for the legion of foreign workers who clean the villas and water the gardens of neighboring Dubai.

According to al-Naqbi, the reason for the crackdown is to prevent couples from having children out of wedlock, which is against both civil and religious law in the emirates. The arrested couple could face 100 lashes for their transgression; more likely they will be jailed for a few months and deported. No one seemed to know what will happen to the children.

The story was front-page news. It’s not clear if this should be interpreted as a kind of coded message from the powers-that-be that the loose morals of foreigners will no longer be tolerated, or a read-between-the-lines criticism of the morality police. Or both.

What is becoming clear, however, is that in the wake of Dubai’s financial crisis, the freewheeling Western lifestyle that was the Dubai’s signature is coming under increasing pressure from the more conservative Islamic elements of this society.

The story that has made headlines both here and in Britain is the one about a British couple sentenced to a month in prison for kissing in public.

The woman, Charlotte Adams, a real estate agent, was visiting Dubai on vacation when she struck up a friendship with Ayman Najafi, a fellow Brit working in Dubai for an international marketing company. The kiss occurred in a restaurant.

Adams and Najafi claim it was friendly peck on the cheek. The local woman who filed the complaint against them said it was on the mouth, although she acknowledged that she didn’t actually see it herself. The only eyewitness was the complainant’s 2-year-old daughter.

Adams, 25, surrendered to authorities this week to begin serving her jail sentence. Najafi, 24, is continuing his appeal.

It used to be that you pretty much had to be having sex on the beach before Dubai authorities would react. In a celebrated 2008 case, two Britons caught in the act got off with suspended sentences. Things have changed.