Sunday, January 09, 2011


My first post on this topic over two years ago, HIV (11-Nov-2008), has gotten a lot of attention. It's a hush-hush topic, after all, and not only in the UAE.

It reflects the immaturity that still exists in many places around the globe. It reflects certain cultural sensitivities, no doubt. Even in a more mature intellectual environment, like that of the US, one has to go around saying things like the N word. How funny and odd that must seem to people not immeshed in that culture.

The problem in the UAE is that HIV cannot even be talked about much less its sufferers being treated humanely. In my 10 plus years in the country I have never heard any office chatter on the topic. It isn't featured in the media and it isn't talked about among groups of casual friends, colleagues or acquaintances. It is the H word here.

Of course, it isn't the only thing that isn't talked about. This is a place where the Internet is heavily censored. Untouchable topics include things related to sexuality, religion, government and some aspects of economy and culture. This, of course, creates an environment where intellectual development is stymied.

Father Knows Best

Now some defend this sort of intellectual subversion--it protects children and the local culture. And the truth is that, even in so-called free and liberal societies, there are things one might say that make many people uncomfortable and can even get one into trouble with the enforces of the law.

Still, SEX, RELIGION, GOVERNMENT, ECONOMY, CULTURE--that is quite a big chunk of topics to take off the table. My mental faculties have certainly been dulled as a result. When there are so many things that one is not allowed to talk about, one eventually stops thinking about them. You eventually stop really thinking at all. That, I suppose, is exactly what the powers at be want--and perhaps many others in the society at large.

And so THEY HAVE WON this fight here in the UAE. We (long term expats like myself) survive and thrive in the UAE, only by turning off a part of our consciousness.

Papa Don't Preach

Now, Abu Dhabi wants to bring culture to the UAE ala the Louvre, the Guggenheim and all things great being planned for Saadiyat Island. But what culture is that really? One hardly has the freedom of thought in this land. A richer culture might emerge, if only the UAE would refrain from deporting or arresting individuals who dare to express views on the many untouchable topics.

HIV--the topic which is the point of this post, but I digress.

I do not think the situation for HIV sufferers... OK sufferers is a completely wrong word choice. (People with HIV--HIV positive status--don't suffer. They live their lives in complete normality if not harassed by government or others in society.) People in the UAE who have become infected with the virus, for whatever reason, still fare poorly--especially those who are non-nationals.

There is no confidential testing. One should take a flight, not only out of the country but completely out of the region, to get tested in order to avoid risk of arrest and/or deportation, or ostracism if one is a UAE national.

Every year that World AIDS Day rolls around we get a few articles in the newspapers addressing the topic with a few hopeful words about how the government is starting treatment or looking to protect the rights of HIV infected individuals. BUT WAIT, this only applies to the population of UAE nationals. It is still the dark ages or the Spanish Inquisition for anyone so identified among the expatriate population, which by some estimates makes up 90% of the UAE resident population.

So, no change in the HIV/AIDS situation here in the UAE for expatriates. No change, either, is likely to come, as long as one dare not even talk about the topic within any public setting.

The Bigger Picture

All things considered, what makes the UAE a livable environment and a place where many people, both local and expatriate, can survive well and even thrive are
  1. a little bit of luck--luck not to be the one to get arrested at the airport for having a grain of narcotic dust on the sole of one's shoe, or a leftover poppy seed from a bun eaten at a transit airport's business lounge--and luck not to contract the HIV virus, whether through a very human error in judgement or circumstances completely beyond ones control, and

  2. a, not only benevolent, but genuinely modern and forward-thinking rulership in the person of those sheikhs and families who rule the UAE.
You see, although it is those same powers that be who have implemented the zero tolerance edicts against alcohol, drugs and HIV (and these things are not ALL vices), they also do a pretty good job of creating a society where there is some distribution of wealth and general peace and tranquility. They cannot be faulted for that.

My one suggestion is to consider that the UAE is still a young nation, which has at least done a great job of providing the basics and spurring incredible economic development. I say, give it time, and the social development will follow. Maybe they've got it backwards in bringing over the Louvre and Guggenheim long before there is any true freedom of expression. But perhaps these things will hasten an eventual social, political and religious maturity.

While being diagnosed HIV positive is still a great tragedy for any individual in the UAE--and not because of the condition itself, but because of the inhumane treatment by the government--it is one of those risks in life that some people choose to live with. It is one of those risks that I have chosen to live with and, at the end of the day, I still choose the UAE, I still choose to live in and call Dubai home.

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