Every workplace has its rules. This is a sign that hangs behind the front reception desk at The National:

Office rules

No flammables or weapons? OK, well, I get that. Not sure how roller skates got on the bad side of the authorities. No physical affection? Ah, well, welcome to the Gulf.

There’s a bank billboard on the road from Abu Dhabi to Dubai extolling how 200-plus nationalities are able to coexist here because of a single goal. (One guesses this is building the UAE economy.) And it’s true for the most part. People from a vast array of cultures do live and work here. Just walking down the street or in the mall means hearing a plethora of languages and accents, most of which you don’t understand at all.

But those differences can clash — especially those between east and west. Recently, two crew from Emirates Airlines got six month jail sentences (reduced to three) for sexting or for committing the “coercion to commit sin.” The estranged husband of the woman sought the messages as proof she was having an affair and got Etisalat, the phone company, to turn over the records during their divorce proceedings. While the court said the texts alone didn’t prove infidelity, they did fulfill “all the necessary angles of coercion to the commitment of sin.” She also lost custody of her 4-year-old son.

A week before that, a British couple at a restaurant in JBR were arrested after an Emirati woman said she and her children saw them kissing and touching immorally. They were convicted and each sentenced to one month in jail followed by deportation, and also fined 1,000 dirhams (or US$367) for consuming alcohol. The couple is appealing the sentence, saying the woman gave conflicting stories about what happened.

(I’m not sure why texts that may talk about an affair means a longer sentence than actual kissing, but there you have it.)

It’s easy when you’re eating at big-name chef restaurants in five-star hotels, sipping pricey bubbly, to forget local attitudes towards unmarried men and women fraternizing. But there, just underneath the surface, the gulf is significant. And it’s important to remember.

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