Several years after the collapse of communism, thousands of prostitutes are still flocking to Dubai, the trade centre of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from the countries of the former Soviet Union. And although prostitution is illegal in the emirate, this appalling trade in human flesh is a high-profile activity in a region which hosts Islam's two holiest places - Makkah and Madinah. Even the self-appointed custodians of the shrines approve of the racket, travelling to Dubai to indulge themselves.
Many of the 'night butterflies', as prostitutes are called in Russian, are young Muslim women - some former students - who came looking for work but have ended in a trap of sin, poverty, exploitation, hopelessness and fear. Indeed, those who try to escape their ordeal often only manage to get killed by pimps and others who have an interest in seeing them secure in their cages. They are in dire need of rescue - not condemnation - and rehabilitation to prepare them for a life fit for Muslim women.
There are now several thousand prostitutes in Dubai. Apart from a few African women, they come from Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Chechenya, Kyrgyzstan and other republics of the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This may be a trickle compared to the hundreds of thousands of young women that flooded into Western Europe when the Soviet Union collapsed, but it is already causing great embarrassment in a sparsely-populated Muslim country, whose authorities are ignoring it for reasons of their own.
The women arrive on weekly flights from the CIS on pre-arranged visas by agents who then confiscate their passports, set them to 'work' and force them to buy back their travelling documents in addition to paying for the arranged visas and the awful accommodation they are given. As soon as the visas expire the women are on the run and become entirely dependent on their pimps. Each day a prostitute stays on without a visa is equivalent to a fine of ú16.
All visitors to Dubai, except British citizens, are required to be sponsored by a local sponsor. It is this system of sponsorship, manipulated ruthlessly which partly makes possible the arrival, and stay, of so many women that are in effect illegal immigrants. Despite their legally precarious position, the prostitutes are becoming bolder and bolder - thronging Dubai's beaches, night-clubs and hotel bars, and openly walking the streets. The majority of their clients are Arabs but the western expatriates are also coveted patrons.
They have in fact become so bold, that even seasoned expatriates are shocked by their aggressiveness. According to one of the very rare foreign reports on the topic, a Swiss engineer who has worked in most of the Gulf States, including Oman and Bahrain, finds their behaviour unprecedented.
A recent article in the London-based Sunday Times quoted him as saying: 'I have never seen such in-your-face prostitution as this. I had literally just stepped into the lift of my hotel when a Russian girl tried to invite herself into my hotel room.'
Yet, the authorities turn a blind eye to this outrage, largely because the business community, both Arab and expatriate, prefers things this way. Dubai, like Bahrain, 'has prospered as a centre for fun-starved Saudis,' as the Sunday Times report puts it.
Dubai owes most of its prosperity to its status as the region's tax-free centre. No longer able to rely on its oil reserves, it defers to the business community which, like secular Gulf Arabs, wants to preserve a Shari'ah-free zone in the region. The six remaining members of the UAE, and their western protectors, share Dubai's antipathy to an Islamic way of life and back its decision to tolerate the prostitution racket.
This explains the extraordinary denial by the emirate's police that the racket exists or that there are large numbers of foreign women who are illegal immigrants as a result of the expiry of their visas or confiscation of their passports by the pimps. It also explains why the local media are under orders from the authorities not to comment on the issue.
Only one thing worries the Gulf potentates and the west about the racket: it is an aspect of the growing drug-smuggling and money-laundering activities of the pimps which is controlled by the Russian mafia. Western officials are concerned that the drugs will end up in their countries and that the money-laundering will cover illegal operations there.
It is not surprising that the joint operations carried out by western and Gulf officials in recent months have concentrated on the drug-smuggling and money-laundering aspects - ignoring the prostitution issue altogether. In July, a joint police investigation smashed a ú25 million drug ring. It was only after arrests were made as a result that Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the UAE president, was moved to hold a crisis meeting with the other six rulers. Even then, no announcement was made and no action taken. Shaikh Zayed simply urged the sponsors to be more vigilant.
The prostitutes - and the child camel jockeys smuggled into UAE out of the Indian subcontinent - are apparently the only illegal 'foreign workers' immune from expulsion. Hundreds of children, some as young as five, are forced to ride on camels in desert races on which huge sums are gambled. Their terrified screams make the camels run faster. And like prostitution, the employment of young jockeys is illegal in the UAE (since 1993) but the authorities also turn a blind eye. Again, like the prostitutes, many of the child jockeys are Muslim children who are being ruthlessly exploited and are in dire need of rescue.
Unlike the prostitutes and the child jockeys, foreign workers in the UAE, including those on legal stay, are routinely rounded up and expelled. Between 1991 and 1996 more than 145,000 workers, mostly Muslim, were sent home (see Crescent International report of December 16-31, 1996). More recently, Saudi Arabia expelled nearly 400,000 workers from the kingdom, accusing of them being there 'illegally.' The majority had simply changed employers - a right denied foreign workers in the kingdom.
The Saudis and Kuwaitis who are engaged in rounding up Muslim workers, approve of the presence of the young prostitutes and jockeys for their own diversion.