Among the relatively liberal Islamic emirates of the UAE, Sharjah is infamous for its hardline stance on matters of dress, alcohol and the relationship between the sexes. These derive from the close financial ties linking Sharjah with Saudi Arabia. In 1989, a Saudi consortium provided a financial rescue package after the emirate’s banking system collapsed with debts of over US$500 million. Saudi advisers subsequently succeeded in persuading Sharjah’s ruler to introduce a version of sharia-style law, and Saudi influence remains strong to this day. Many locals bemoan the stultifying effect these laws have had on the emirate‘s development – particularly painful given that, up until the 1950s, Sharjah was one of the most developed and cosmopolitan cities in the lower Gulf. Alcohol is banned, making it the only dry emirate in the UAE; the wearing of tight or revealing clothing in public areas is likely to get you into trouble with locals or the police; couples “not in a legally acceptable relationship” are, according to the emirate’s “decency laws”, not even meant to be alone in public together (in 2010 police even started going door to door in an attempt to round up cohabiting unmarried couples). Punishments for more serious offences include imprisonment and flogging, and there have been repeated reports of Asian and Arab expat workers being arrested by the city’s hardline police and being carted off into detention. Nor have Western expats been immune from grotesque miscarriages of justice, such as twenty-year-old British aviation student, Ahmad Zeidan, who in 2013 was arrested in Sharjah for alleged drug offences, beaten, stripped naked, kept hooded in solitary confinement, threatened with sexual violence, forced into signing a confession in Arabic (a language he did not understand) and sentenced to nine years in prison, where he languishes to this day.

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