October 28, 2020 - 11:40am

When a newborn baby was found abandoned in a bathroom at Doha Airport on 2nd October, Qatari officials acted swiftly. Women on a flight bound for Sydney, all of whom had briefly had access to the bathroom, were hauled off their plane, escorted to waiting ambulances, and strip searched. Women of childbearing age were also searched internally.

Despite these efforts, the mother wasn’t found. As The Times reports:

Abandonment of babies is a regular problem in Gulf states, where strict rules on sex outside marriage mean that giving birth without having a marriage certificate, or even simply reporting a pregnancy to doctors, can incur a prison sentence.
- The Times

This isn’t the first time that Westerners — particularly Western women — have run afoul of draconian laws while travelling through the Gulf. In 2016, a British woman who had been gang raped by two fellow travellers reported the crime to Dubai police and was arrested for breaking Emirati laws against extra-marital sex. In 2018, another British woman was jailed in Dubai for several days, allegedly for drinking wine on her flight from London.

As a British-Australian, I’ve often travelled through Gulf airports, most regularly Dubai — which alone attracts half a million British tourists a year. MuscatAbu Dhabi, and Doha have also experienced a tourism boom over the last decade, offering visitors shopping, five star hotels, and plenty of sunshine.

These Gulf states have worked hard to present themselves as a playground for rich Westerners. Dubai Airport, in particular, has been carefully designed to cultivate a very particular Westernised image. Everywhere you look, there are luxury brands, British restaurant chains, and clocks sponsored by Rolex.

You’d never know, as a casual visitor, that these oil-rich states are very far from fully Westernised. Sharper-eyed tourists might wonder why almost all of the airport and hotel workers are South Asian, as are most of the ‘virtual slaves’ who work in construction or as domestic servants. They might also notice the treatment these workers are subjected to.

A family friend who recently stayed in an Abu Dhabi hotel noted the presence of a woman whose only job seemed to be to crawl around on the floor, wiping up the splashing water from a nearby fountain. She spent all day on her hands and knees, disregarded by most passing visitors. Such women are acutely vulnerable to abuse by their employers, particularly sexual abuse, which is one reason for the large numbers of abandoned babies.

The relationship between Westerners and the Gulf states is one of convenience and, for airlines, Doha and Dubai provide useful refuelling stops, particularly on the route between Europe and Australia.

But new direct flights from London to Perth may put an end to this arrangement, and many Australians of my acquaintance will be relieved. Because occasionally the mask slips, as in this latest dreadful incident, and we are reminded that a superficial imitation of Westernisation is only an illusion. These Gulf states have appropriated only the worst elements of the West, while rejecting the best.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.