Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging. Johann Hari reports
There is one group in Dubai for whom the rhetoric of sudden freedom and liberation rings true – but it is the very group the government wanted to liberate least: gays.
Beneath a famous international hotel, I clamber down into possibly the only gay club on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. I find a United Nations of tank-tops and bulging biceps, dancing to Kylie, dropping ecstasy, and partying like it's Soho. "Dubai is the best place in the Muslim world for gays!" a 25-year old Emirati with spiked hair says, his arms wrapped around his 31-year old "husband". "We are alive. We can meet. That is more than most Arab gays."
It is illegal to be gay in Dubai, and punishable by 10 years in prison. But the locations of the latest unofficial gay clubs circulate online, and men flock there, seemingly unafraid of the police. "They might bust the club, but they will just disperse us," one of them says. "The police have other things to do."
In every large city, gay people find a way to find each other – but Dubai has become the clearing-house for the region's homosexuals, a place where they can live in relative safety. Saleh, a lean private in the Saudi Arabian army, has come here for the Coldplay concert, and tells me Dubai is "great" for gays: "In Saudi, it's hard to be straight when you're young. The women are shut away so everyone has gay sex. But they only want to have sex with boys – 15- to 21-year-olds. I'm 27, so I'm too old now. I need to find real gays, so this is the best place. All Arab gays want to live in Dubai."
With that, Saleh dances off across the dancefloor, towards a Dutch guy with big biceps and a big smile.