Dubai Deals With Expat Debauchery

Dubai may be the playground of the Middle East, but for expats and tourists, play time here can get out of hand.

In one famous case of expat debauchery this summer, Britons Vince Acors, a tourist, and Michelle Palmer, a resident, were arrested for having sex on a Dubai beach. Also accused of hurling racial slurs and a shoe at the approaching police officer, the couple now faces up to six years in prison.

The Palmer-Acors case highlights a growing frustration with the behavior of Western visitors, not only among Emiratis -- who comprise only 20 percent of the population in their own country -- but also among expats. Roughly a week after the beach arrest, Dubai police announced they had recently detained 79 people for violations of public decency.

Such crackdowns and incidents have fueled a stereotype of the vacationing foreigner, with the British leading in disrepute.

"In the Arab world, being an English girl now means you can't hold down your drink, you're an alcoholic and you're a slut," said one longtime resident of the UAE, who knows Michelle Palmer and spoke to ABC News anonymously.

"I look down on it ... the blatant disrespect because she thought she was above the law."

Britons make up the largest population of Western expats in the UAE. Though the United Kingdom never colonized the country, the British have had a long commercial and cultural presence in the Emirates. Today, Dubai bars such as Rock Bottom and Irish Village, a cluster of pubs, have become the epicenter of British social life.

"[British expats] think they can go where they want and do what they want, but it's not that simple. ... It's still that colonial mentality. Drinking is part of an English institution, and it gets taken to extreme," said the Dubai resident, a British national.

Americans, she says, has a reputation for being more conservative and contained. But opportunities for excess, like all-day, all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffets, make it easy for some Dubai visitors to go overboard. One popular locale, an Australian restaurant named Yalumba, is where friends say Palmer and Acors drank before the beach romp that landed them in court.

One City, Many Lifestyles

The laissez-faire lifestyle Dubai has evolved to accommodate has led to contradicting standards of behavior. Prostitution is common and highly visible, but public displays of affection are frowned upon and premarital sex officially illegal. Alcohol is freely served in hotels and nightspots, while drinking at home technically requires a liquor license available to non-Muslims only. Adultery, homosexuality and possession of pornography are also officially outlawed.

"The religion and culture is tied up with the state here in the UAE. ... It is very much part of everyday life," said Laurence Kraenzlin, a marketing director with Dubai's Raffles Hotel.

"People do have a tendency to come here and live the life that they're used to in their home countries. You have to respect the local culture. It is a different world."

Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors are two among a broad swath of British and American visitors arrested while letting loose in Dubai. Of the 1.1 million British tourists who visited the UAR last year, 230 were arrested for various offenses, according to the U.K. Foreign Office.

Many were arrests for drug-related offenses under Dubai's zero tolerance policy for possession of marijuana and other narcotics. Possession of even small amounts of drugs -- and the presence of narcotics in the bloodstream can count as possession -- can lead to a minimum of four years in prison.

Such was the case for American Dallas Austin, a Grammy-winning music producer arrested in Dubai for drug possession in 2006. Austin, who is behind songs by Madonna and Gwen Stefani, was traveling to Naomi Campbell's birthday party at the seven-star Burj Al Arab when Dubai authorities caught him with 1.26 grams of cocaine. Held without bail at a local police station, he was convicted and sentenced to a four-year term but pardoned soon after by Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Some expat offenders are less flagrant, and merely get caught in the cross hairs of cultural difference. Wearing short shorts and short sleeves in Sharjah, Dubai's more conservative neighbor, is not allowed. If visiting any Gulf country during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, punishable offenses include eating, drinking or smoking in public.

But the cases that grab most attention involve expats behaving badly.

"Dubai is a fast-growing city. You do tend to go to excesses," said Kraenzlin. "At the end of the day, when a few people misconduct, it reflects on the countries they come from."