Richard Dawkins and Me in Dubai,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Richard Dawkins and Robyn E. Blumner.

What is Dubai and why should we care?

Is it the murmurings of a nascent Arab Enlightenment where reason and science are valued, giving hope to its future? Or is it a gleaming, modern facade under which beats the heart of an Islamic theocracy run by a PR-savvy ruler?

That was the question Richard Dawkins and I explored during a recent week in this young city on ancient land. Our host, Toufic Hobeika, believes Dubai is the former, a mecca of sorts for intelligent forward-thinking in the Arab world. But even he acknowledges that there are limits on freedom of conscience that chafe.

There is no denying that Dubai is a glittering metropolis. It is home to engineering marvels such as Palm Jumeirah, the iconic set of man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree, and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (at least for now).

New construction is going on everywhere. People—to be frank, wealthy people—are moving to Dubai in droves. They come for the sun. They come for the sea. They come for the luxury shopping and Michelin-Star chefs’ restaurants. And, most importantly, they come for the tax advantages. There are no income or real estate taxes in Dubai. It’s a great place to park your Lamborghini and your millions.

Others come to work and escape the grinding poverty of their homelands. Dubai has been called a modern slave society because its imported laborers work long days in the brutal sun and may live in squalid conditions. Wages are low by Western standards but significantly higher than these workers would enjoy back home. Complaints can get you fired and your work visa canceled. That is not slavery—not even close. But it is also a decidedly tiered system of disparate treatment open to criticism.

Everyone in Dubai speaks English. It’s the first language on store signs with Arabic a seeming afterthought—if it’s there at all. Most people walk around in Western dress. Perhaps only 10 percent wear traditional tunics, with men in white kanduras and women in all black abayas.

The only dress-code enforcement I witnessed were two police officers politely admonishing a group of male tourists to put their face masks on. Everyone complied. People here follow the rules.

“Where are the homeless?,” I asked Hobeika. The system filters them out, he says. If you are a native Emirati, about 11 percent of the population, the government buys you a house. If you are not a native, then you are in Dubai to work or live off your wealth. Either way, it’s a tentative arrangement that can be revoked at any time. There is no naturalization process and no birthright citizenship. And because begging is illegal, police will fine anyone found panhandling and will ask for their papers, leading to more fines for visa violations and eventually self-deportation.

Outlaw penury and give no violators the right to stay, and voila, problem solved.

Hobeika has been in Dubai for twenty years. He loves it. Originally from Lebanon, he is an atheist but a quiet one. His friends, all from Lebanon as well, have dubbed themselves the “Godless Nerds.” (I first described this as a “club” but was corrected by Hobeika. Clubs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) require a special license from the government to exist. Hobeika’s group is just some friends who get together.)

They meet each month to enjoy specialty whisky and discuss books and ideas, especially those of Richard Dawkins. While discussion is freewheeling among themselves, they are cautious about sharing their views with others. The country outlaws the spreading of atheism, and they want to stand far afield from crossing that line.

What Hobeika impresses on us is the radical, ambitious vision of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, also the prime minister of the UAE, of which Dubai is one of seven city-state emirates. The Sheikh and his Crown Prince envision a place where the best of the Arab brain trust can come and be funded to explore the reaches of science, computing, medicine, and engineering.

On the one hand, this is promising and inspirational; on the other, it is baldly transactional. But when you are building a megacity out of a desert and in a few short decades trying to catch up to and exceed hundreds of years of human advancements, transactions are what will pave the way forward. It seems to be working. Dubai is investing not just in buildings but in human capital. A smart gambit.

But is it enough?

Laws are changing. Sex outside of marriage is now legal. Hobeika thinks it won’t be long before homosexuality is legalized, too. Just not yet. He posits: How long did the West take to legalize gay relationships and marriage? Give it time; Dubai will get there, he says.

Sharia law is still practiced, although brutal corporal punishments are no longer allowed. Men can still have up to four wives. Islam is the official state religion. Blasphemy is illegal.

From my perspective, there are promising signs in Dubai, certainly as compared with fellow Sunni nation Saudi Arabia, but it has a long way to go. Also, of course, in a sheikhdom it all depends on the ruler. Right now, it has a good one who is pushing Dubai toward adoption of Western ideals of human dignity, tolerance, and progress. Hobeika says the Crown Prince shares his father’s vision and progressive ambitions. I say, while that may work well right now, who knows about the next sheikh or the one after that?

For us, the real question was whether Dubai was ready for Richard Dawkins.

Some of Dawkins’s books in Kinokuniya, the biggest bookstore in Dubai.

We checked what was on offer at Kinokuniya, the biggest bookstore in the Dubai Mall, which is the largest shopping mall in the world (“the biggest in the world” is a theme throughout Dubai). Encouragingly, many books by Dawkins were available, including his book for teens titled Outgrowing God. But one title was conspicuously absent—The God Delusion. When we asked, we were told they don’t carry it.

Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True was on the shelf but not his Faith vs. Fact. Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was in the store but not Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. We asked and were told that Hitchens’s book is not available and could not be ordered. Interestingly, Hobeika said he had bought that book there many years ago. What had happened in the interim? Complaints by customers? Official censorship?

Meanwhile, the Religion section of the bookstore stocked Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and his book with Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance. Very good signs, I’d say.

The offerings were certainly better than what we saw at the Dubai Public Library. The results of a computer search of the library system’s holdings were rather abysmal.

There were no books by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One book by Daniel Dennett was available, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, and two books by Richard Dawkins showed up in the computer listing. The first was, amazingly, The God Delusion. But next to that listing was a note that it is no longer available. The sole Dawkins book available was River out of Eden.

Charles Darwin doesn’t do much better in the Dubai Public Library. Its holdings included no copies of On the Origin of Species in English and only one copy in Arabic. However, there were seven copies of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

But the number of books available by L. Ron Hubbard? Fifty-four.

Hobeika video-recorded our visit. He plans to post a highly edited version of “Richard Dawkins in Dubai” sometime this summer. His hope is that the country’s leadership will formally welcome Dawkins back. Dawkins is open to that but wants to be allowed to teach evolution to public school children, a subject not generally part of the public school curriculum. (That is tragic of course but not as devastating as it sounds because a majority of children in Dubai attend private school where evolution is taught.)

The fact that the promotion of atheism and criticism of Islam are not tolerated, and that evolution is absent from the public-school curriculum, are telling signs that Dubai is not yet committed to true tolerance, freedom of conscience, or scientific literacy. Hobeika is optimistic that eventually atheism will be accepted the way religious views other than Islam currently are. But for now, he is a closet atheist, like his fellow Godless Nerds. And Dubai remains a place where the good life beckons—if you have money, talent, and a willingness to be quiet and conform.

What is Dubai and why should we care? Is it the murmurings of a nascent Arab Enlightenment where reason and science are valued, giving hope to its future? Or is it a gleaming, modern facade under which beats the heart of an Islamic theocracy run by a PR-savvy ruler? That was the question Richard Dawkins …