Before I get into this, I want to ask you to do something: after you've clicked the "follow" link (please!), there is something else. Share this post on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else, with your female friends. That's right, just the ladies. Especially Arab ladies. The share buttons are at the bottom of the post, next to the "comments" link (please feel free to do that too). But really, share with the ladies you know; I will explain why.
So let me begin: like the piece about internet polls, this one was inspired by a discussion on a forum. I just want to make clear at this stage that it is a pretty dark subject, and that many of my dear friends and brothers will be shifting uncomfortably in their seats when they read it. Not all of course, but a lot. This is why I want you to share it with women only - I don't want any one individual to feel a finger is pointed at him. But I do want to get this subject discussed, and questions asked by women about the men in their lives, so that men can ask some questions of themselves rather than rush into a knee-jerk denial.
For anyone who spends time in one of the GCC countries - there are others, but the GCC is where I have spent most of my adult life - this question is going to come up. Brothers. Men. Muslims. Arab dudes. What IS IT with you and prostitutes?
In most non-Arab countries, if a man told his friends that he paid to be serviced by a trafficked sex worker, they would be horrified. "Chinese takeaways" in Dubai are not something that most people think of as recreation in other countries. For most people I've known in various countries of the world, it would be a terrible shame to be known to have "bought" sex. So why is it so common in the GCC? And it is. Maybe this sounds like a stereotype, but ask yourself honestly: if your friend, cousin or whoever is going on a trip to Morocco, Lebanon, Thailand, or just a weekend in Dubai with the "guys", what are you thinking? Yeah, and you're almost certainly right. Maybe that's why you try not to think about it, but you should. Ever seen a group of SUVs full of camping equipment in the long term parking at the airport? I have! Why? Because the guys told their wives they were going on a five day desert trip. They are actually now on final approach to Bangkok, and will be holding a packet of Viagra (genuine or otherwise) in one hand, and a teenaged (genuine or otherwise) prostitute in the other, before the sun sets, and long after.
In the GCC, even "decent" men seem to think it's a rite of passage, or somehow amusing, to have sexual "adventures" with prostitutes. I mean ordinary men. Average, normal men. Husbands, fathers, even those who pray on time and fast devoutly. Men who have never touched alcohol in their lives even. People I call friends. Many, many of my friends - and I don't mean the small minority who like to go the bar at the weekend. I mean the majority for whom a strong coffee is their biggest intoxicant. That's what bothers me, and should bother you. I'm talking about your husband, your brother, your father, your son. The guy sitting next to you. Because over many years I've learned that for a large proportion of khaleeji men, using prostitutes is just one of those "naughty" things you don't tell your wife about; no worse than telling dirty jokes, breaking wind in front of your friends, or smoking a sneaky sheesha.
But this isn't a minor indiscretion. There are some obvious reasons why women need to worry about this. One of them is HIV. In every GCC country, foreigners are required to submit to an HIV test when renewing their labour or residence permits. There is an ethical issues about this - in other countries, no-one can compel you to test, and if you choose to have a test, counselling is available before and after. But more than that, it seems to be a bit of a waste of time when nationals are not compelled to have tests, nor inclined to do so of their own choice. Not to mention the fact that some foreigners also manage to pay a 'fee' not to have the test. And short term visitors aren't tested anyway.
I used to live in Saudi Arabia, where the official AIDS statistic among nationals at the time was under 500. Yet the editor of a daily newspaper there told me in confidence that he had personally visited two AIDS clinics there in Jedda where each had over 1000 patients with full blown AIDS. If you extrapolate that across the country, and then add the fact that in a HIV epidemic, AIDS sufferers are initially a very small number compared to virus carriers (it can lay dormant for up to 15 years), the problem must be very big. That was ten years ago. I suspect the problem in Oman is similar.
My Saudi friend gave a reason for the problem: foreigners were tested, and also tended to be more aware of sexual matters like using condoms to prevent disease (even uneducated labourers). Yet many of his compatriots never used a condom. His junior Saudi staff on the paper earned around OR 150/month (this is around ten years ago). They would travel every Summer with their small savings to Beirut, Dubai or Morocco. There they would stay in the cheapest hotels, drink the cheapest liquor, and go with the cheapest girls (usually sharing one between them). He thought this was a common phenomenon among single (and some married) men. Nobody ever advised them on sexual health at school or through public information campaigns, and of course they would never think of having a test.
The big shock would come when they married: they would give the virus to their wife, which would not normally be discovered until she was pregnant, at which point there is a 60% chance that she will transmit the virus to the baby too. I don't know how many Omani men use prostitutes as a percentage. But I do know from a doctor who ran the blood lab, that one well-known hospital in the Muscat area receives dozens of cases a week of young women with the HIV virus, mystified as to how they got it: they married as virgins and assumed their husbands had done the same.
But it's not just a matter of personal health. As human beings, we should wonder how a typical prostitute ends up that way, and I have a story to share. During my life I have done many terrible, sinful things. Pretty much everything you can think of short of murder, and several things you can't. Despite that, and for many reasons, I've never had sex with a prostitute. However, In late 2003 (if I remember rightly), at an apartment in Dubai, I spent all night talking to one. A girl in her early twenties from a provincial Russian city. Her name wasn't "Natasha" (the generic name given by some to Russian prostitutes in the Gulf), but let's call her that anyway. This came about during a truly bizarre evening (in my mind at least). Perhaps that bizarre thing is that for others it was so ordinary.
I had been with a close friend (innocent party I hasten to add!), at an event in Dubai and we were supposed to be flying back to Muscat. At the last minute, I had a call from another friend, "P" who had been our host, who invited me to stay on for the night, and offered to put me up at a the apartment of another friend of his, "E". I didn't know "E", but had no other plans and agreed to stay and drive back with "P" in the morning. But on arrival at "E"'s apartment, where I expected to find "E", "P" and another man I didn't know "C", I also found four prostitutes. Two Chinese, one Kazakh, and a Russian. The "Natasha" was for me.
As P, E and C retired to various rooms with their entertainment, I found myself sitting with a nervous young woman in the living room. For the next seven or eight hours, we talked. First off, I told her nothing was going to happen. She was worried. I said she could tell the Kazakh (who appeared to be her boss) whatever she needed to in the morning, but this was a night off: she could sleep, drink, watch TV or do what she liked. But I didn't do prostitution. With that done, after a long uncomfortable silence, in broken English, and eventually through some tears, I got the story:
Natasha had grown up in Stavropol in a comfortable middle class family by local standards. Her father had a decent job and supported his family with reasonable ease. Natasha had graduated from veterinary college and was looking for a job. But none were to be found. She was well aware, from information campaigns and TV documentaries, of the risks to women who traveled abroad to work in unfamiliar places. But after two years of unemployment, being reasonably strong in English and aware of the dangers, she looked into it: there was an office in the city offering jobs in the UAE, which surely would have been closed down by now had there been problems with it. And anyway, such things couldn't happen to a smart, independent, educated girl. Out of self respect, she needed to earn her own living. So she would try a three month contract working in a shop in Dubai.
There was a weekly direct flight to Sharjah (not the most obvious economic connection, really), and once she'd signed up at the recruitment office, she was on her way within days. On arrival, she was met by another Russian lady - a Chechen - at the airport, who took her passport to put her visa in, and drove her to her new apartment - a modern, pleasant place that she would share with five other girls. And then the thunderbolt hit. "What time do we go to the shop in the morning?" she asked the Chechen lady. The devastating reply was simple enough: "Shop? What shop? Don't be ridiculous girl, you're a prostitute." Natasha wasn't a prostitute, said so, and demanded to be taken back to the airport. Then came the game-changer: "Sure, if you didn't know then you can go home. Just call your father and get him to go to the Western Union office. We need your flight, registration and visa fees, your advance rent, your lost earnings and our administrative charge, plus the money to get you another ticket back. It will be $14,000. Do that and you can go."
Natasha knew her father didn't have that kind of money. Maybe he could get it, from loan sharks or whoever. And if he knew her situation, he certainly would. But there was a choice to make: put her father in debt to gangsters, or survive the next three months. She didn't want to make the choice. She begged and cried and shouted in the apartment. "Shut up, calm down. It is what it is, but you'll get used to it." That was the advice from the other girls. And after three days, she went with the first man. And that was that. She became what the Chechen woman told her she was. Every week she called home and told her family things were OK. At the same time, she tried to dissuade her younger sister who was thinking of joining her, telling her it was difficult and not fun, but trying not to give anything away.
The tragedy is unimaginable. And it gets worse. I said that at least, after all she'd been through, the end was near. Her three months were up in just a few days and she was due to go home. The ticket was bought. Whatever hideous experience she had had, it was almost over. She could go home and start again. I asked what she thought she might do, and I was shocked: she said she would probably come back. "I am a bad person now. I have done horrible things with all these people. I am worth nothing. I am what she said I am". In a few short words, the tale of a human psyche destroyed in detail. By the time early morning came (and "P", mercifully, woke early and wanted to get going), Natasha had her dead-eyed expression reassembled for the day ahead. The veterinary student from Stavropol was gone again.
That, at least most of the time, is how a normal woman becomes a prostitute. The prostitute with whom our friends and brothers have their adventures. The subject of the knowing glances, the winks, the laughter as we sit together over coffee at some later date. And that's why I don't think it's so funny.
On a side note, yes I do single out Dubai as it seems to be such a central and openly-tolerated part of the economic model there. It's a reason I rarely go there and feel no admiration for its economic "achievements". Dubai is by no means alone, but it's the people-trafficking and prostitution capital of the Gulf and seems to revel in the fact. Clean your house, really, before you brag about how big it is.
Back to the point, and apart from the health issues, and the victims of prostitution directly, I think there is another issue worth mentioning. How does having sex with numerous different women for money, affect a man's general view of women? There is another sad thing, I believe, about the prostitution culture among khaleeji men. Any woman who he gets his hands on outside of marriage, can immediately be given the same status as those exploited sex workers. A "whore is a whore". Someone even asked me about an Omani businesswoman I know recently: "Oh, Z? She's a prostitute right?" He actually used that word in English. What he meant was that he'd heard she had a boyfriend. She was in some kind of relationship with a man, and he drew no distinction between her, his co-religionist and compatriot, and a sex worker. What's more, it was clear what he meant by the analogy - it was two things: one one level "what a low, worthless woman", and on another level "do you think I can get a turn?". Such is the common duplicity of male culture around here.
There are plenty of men (and not just young boys) who put great effort into "romancing" girls and women from their own country, to the point that can get some pleasure. At which point they start thinking of them as "whores". Actually, sometimes that even becomes self-fulfilling. Having successfully compromised the girl's moral integrity, she is a different person in their eyes. When the girl realises they no longer want to marry her (if they ever did), and dumps them, they turn on her: share any information, even pictures, personal details, and pass the word around. They might blackmail her to keep seeing them, have sex with them if she hasn't gone that far before. Some will even recommend her to their friends as (how disgusting is this expression) "open".
This is a pretty difficult subject to talk about, but let's talk some home truths: in the culture of many men in this region, there are two kinds of women - wives and whores. Wives are virgins who never spoke to a man, women who know men (to whatever degree) are whores, and whores are all the same, there to be played with. And as someone pointed out in the forum discussion that inspired this, it's not just men: perhaps it will be surprising to some how much this equivalence is also perpetuated by women. In the mean time, men are just men: girls are just expected to follow the "don't ask, don't tell" principle. Whether they tell or not is up to them. But I'd suggest you ask.
I love my Omani and other khaleeji friends, my brothers. But there are certain attitudes that disgust me. Don't be offended: as they say, your friend is the one who tells you the truth, not the one who believes you. And the truth is that a lot of you have a really nasty habit of fucking prostitutes. Think about it.
P.S. I hope no individual will think I'm accusing him, but even most of those who are innocent probably know this is true. So share this with some women as they are the only ones who won't be insulted you showed it to them. The button's just down there.