In Dubai, there was a basketball court near my hotel with full-court pickup games each night. One night I passed by to find it closed and locked, with one lone guy standing outside the gate holding a ball. He explained that there had been a fight the night before, several guys were arrested, and the court would be shuttered for two weeks as punishment.
“The fight wasn’t even that bad,” said the Indian migrant. “Dubai just takes everything so seriously.”
Indeed it does, as do other Middle Eastern countries regarding public order. Namely in the “new money” Arabian Gulf ones that I profiled last week, a mix of traditional religious thinking and modern smart city surveillance means behavior is highly regulated.
Whether or not this is a desirable social contract depends on one’s preference. But it’s hard to argue with the results. Arabian Gulf cities are clean, safe and orderly, and this helps inform their hyper-productive economic mindset. As video after video goes viral of the crime inflicting big U.S. cities, maybe there’s something we can learn from the region.
Public disorder and criminality are indeed visibly increasing in the U.S., even in wealthy cities. Though the Covid-triggered economic crisis and the 2020 riots worsened the situation—New York City’s murder count increased drastically the last 3 years—it was a persistent feature of U.S. urban life before then. Open-air drug markets can be found in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Violence on public transit has increased, with the murder count on New York’s MTA, for example, rising from five or fewer killings annually prior to 2020 to 21 from 2020 to 2022. The Los Angeles Metro has seen a recent spike in violent crime as well as intoxication.
I’ve found while traveling the Global South this past year that, unsurprisingly, much of the Third World is worse. There’s an air of sketchiness that permeates every big Latin American city, seen in the graffiti, open-air drug dealing, petty theft—and worse. Africa can be similar, depending on the city, as anyone of means lives behind gates and mafias control certain blocks.
So visiting high-end Arabian Gulf cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar was a welcome change. Public greenspaces are well-kept, devoid of the trash and needles I’ve grown used to in big cities. The transit is sleek, and those who use it well-mannered. There are scarcely any homeless, much less the quality-of-life-crimes associated with them, like aggressive panhandling. It is safe to walk around at night—and in fact that’s when most people do given the extreme daytime temperatures.
The contrast is attributable to laws, and a larger degree to culture.
Gulf nations harshly penalize drug use and sales as well as general public disorder. A Saudi Arabian state webpage says repeat-offending drug dealers can face the death penalty (though there was a moratorium on drug-related executions that ended in 2022), but even a first offense is punishable by “imprisonment, lashing or financial fine”. Users face two years in prison or mandatory hospitalization, and foreigners who use drugs on Saudi soil are deported. Convicted drug traffickers in the UAE face a minimum five-year prison sentence and a fine of over $13,000. Qatar executes drug traffickers and deports foreigners who use drugs, and according to Expatica, “authorities make no exceptions and foreign embassies are generally powerless to intercede on their citizens’ behalf.”
Public disorder and violence are strictly and swiftly punished, as the above example shows. In Saudi Arabia, infringements ranging from sexual harassment to loudly playing music in public are punishable by significant fines. Before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, visiting fans were warned that public vulgarity and even minor public drinking could carry significant penalties. Recently in Dubai, an American social media celebrity was imprisoned for harassing a rental car employee. I noticed while there that pedestrians would not jaywalk even when the opportunity arose, instead sticking to crosswalks: jaywalking there is punishable by a fine exceeding $100. Violent crimes are likewise dealt with seriously: murder and rape are punishable by death in Dubai.
Culture and religion, not just government, play a role also (granted, there is little separation between the two). These states are heavily Muslim, and Islam generally regards drug and alcohol use as immoral. Saudi Arabia is a formally Muslim state, and thus applies sharia law. Muslim countries have some of the world’s lowest rates of alcohol consumption, and there is evidence that these trends continue among more religious Muslim populations in countries where alcohol is legal.
Gulf cities are safer than U.S. ones. Numbeo reports that Dubai scores considerably better on multiple safety metrics than New York City—overall, the former’s “crime index” point is 16.31 versus NYC’s 49.71 and ranks over 30 points higher on the site’s safety index. Riyadh, Doha, Kuwait City, and Bahrain’s capital Manama likewise all score better. This too, as I’ve been informed by locals, boils down to religion: while Westerners sometimes lampoon Muslims as backwards desert terrorists, the truth is that the religion forbids violence, theft, and corruption—and locals take these teachings seriously.
Again, whether or not this religious ideology should be used in politics is another story. The anti-crime tactics of Gulf countries go hand in hand with their generally authoritarian and draconian approach to other life aspects. Saudi Arabia is notorious for extending these punishments to political dissenters and forbidding free religious exercise. Free speech is not truly respected anywhere in the region.
But it’s also easy to see the connection between this rigid public and behavioral realm, and the Gulf’s larger economic system of stable laws, clean government, and a robust private sector. People are expected to conduct themselves in a stable manner—in business and in private life—and do so as much through voluntary social mores as legal enforcement. It doesn’t fit America’s freewheeling spirit, but has helped many Arabian Gulf cities achieve a quality of urbanism not found in our country.
Graphic Credit: The Market Urbanist.
Catalyst articles by Scott Beyer | Full Biography and Publications