Arabs Riding Harleys Rev Up Emirates' Ire

AT Abu Dhabi's Marina Beach Club, young men and women in jeans and cropped shirts sway to the latest pop hits and watch music videos on a huge screen.

An increasingly loud roar turns heads. A dozen young men and women with dark-blue bandanas covering their heads pull up to the dance floor on gleaming silver Harley Davidsons.

''Some of these riders are locals,'' an Arab regular says, smiling proudly. ''They come here every Friday from all over the Emirates.''

Such scenes would be outrageous in most Mideast countries, but not in the United Arab Emirates, a group of Muslim sheikdoms on the Persian Gulf. Where locals make up less than 25 percent of the UAE's 2 million people, its conservative image has changed since the discovery of oil turned it into a land of skyscrapers and eight-lane highways.

''The large number of foreigners has caused a change in our values, customs, and traditions,'' Saeed Hareb, a UAE University sociologist, recently told a group of government ministers. ''This poses a danger to our Arab Islamic identity.''

And the government is no longer looking the other way. It has embarked on a campaign to preserve traditional Arab and Islamic culture.

Foreigners flocked here in the 1960s when a construction boom fueled by the discovery of oil required laborers to build roads, schools, and hospitals. The Emirates was transformed from a string of fishing villages into the region's trading and tourism capital.

But the presence of a huge expatriate work force, which helped the country make that leap, has overshadowed local traditions. Foreign influence pervades nearly every aspect of Emirates society.

Policemen charged with the national duty of protecting the UAE's citizens are from Sudan, Yemen, or Oman.

Of the 24 movie theaters in the country, 15 of them feature only Indian films, and the rest are in English.

Urdu, Farsi, and Russian are more commonly heard on the streets here than Arabic.

The government's primary goal is to decrease the country's dependence on foreign workers, who fill all kinds of jobs, from bellhops, to advertising executives, to bureaucrats at various ministries.

Though nationals usually prefer well-paying government positions, they are now being trained as bank tellers, salespeople, and engineers.

And the police academy has started recruiting women, making the UAE one of the few Arab countries with female police officers.

In this affluent society where foreign servants sometimes outnumber family mem- bers, housewives are now told to reduce domestic help.

The men, who have traditionally left most of the work to their foreign personnel, are now told to take care of business themselves.

''We are told to oversee our own work,'' says Dhaen Shaheen, ''and to encourage our wives not to depend on maids so much.''

The authorities are also blaming foreigners for an unprecedented rise in crime, drug abuse, and vice offenses.

''Western influence has eroded family values and weakened parental authority,'' chief of Sharjah Police Col. Mohammed al-Mualla told reporters recently. ''Our police force will step up efforts to maintain social values in keeping with Islamic and Arabic traditons.''

Strict Islamic law is slowly replacing old British laws. Muslims who are caught drunk are flogged 80 times. Couples who engage in extramarital sex are lashed, imprisoned, and deported. And the death penalty for drug dealers was introduced last week.

Even the scores of hawkers who came here seeking easy money have been swept up in the crackdown. Late one night, gold-toothed Russian peasants, in red flowered head scarves spread teapots and cups along the water inlet that cuts through Dubai's center. Indians and Pakistanis run their hands over the goods while haggling over prices.

Suddenly two UAE nationals in flowing white robes and headdresses descend on the throng frisking hawkers for contraband.

''We are just visitors,'' one of the Russian women says nervously as an Indian man is hauled off.

Part of the government's campaign has delved into the very personal. When young men started choosing Asian and Western brides to avoid prohibitive dowry and wedding costs, the state poured over $150 million into a marriage fund to encourage them to marry locals.

''Marrying within our own culture is much better for our society and for future generations,'' says Jamal al-Bah, head of the marriage fund.

''Children with non-Arab mothers will grow up confused about which culture they belong to. We want to avoid that,'' Mr. Bah goes on to say.

Along with a number of sociologists and religious figures, Mr. Bah gives weekly lectures to high school and university students on the dangers to society of mixed marriages, on the duties of marriage in Islam, and the dangers of promiscuity.

But in spite of their efforts, the authorities face a daunting task in trying to persuade young people to return to their traditional roots.

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