When publicity announced that the film Sex and the City 2 (to be released in the UK and the US later this month) would feature the cast of New York fashionistas frolicking in Abu Dhabi, the news was met in the Middle East with disbelief.
After all, the UAE banned the first film from its cinemas. And it was known that when the producers asked to shoot the second film in the country, they were rebuffed first by Dubai and later Abu Dhabi causing the crew to settle on Morocco for an appropriate backdrop (though Abu Dhabi was kept in the script as the supposed location).
“It was like we went on a date with the Middle East and then they decided we shouldn’t go on another date. The idea of sex and these liberated women being filmed there was a little too progressive for where they are right now,” explained Michael Patrick King, the movie’s producer and writer, in an interview.
Some are hoping that by changing the title to “Ladies in the City” the new movie might just pass the UAE censors who are known for banning anything containing the word “sex”. But a major DVD distributor in the UAE is pessimistic: “The series has been banned since 2006 and I’m sure they’ll ban the movie.” The film’s distributors for Lebanon concur: “We think the movie will only be released here and in Jordan.”
For years, film distributors, DVD and book exporters have practised self-censorship when deciding on what they will ship to the UAE. “We know that anything with nudity, alcohol or related to religions other than Islam won’t pass,” explains one bookseller. He cites titles as broad as 500 Cocktail Recipes, Animals of the Bible, the self-help book Healing with the Angels and international bestseller Perfume as books that are banned from Emirati stores.
The UAE’s conservative attitude towards pop culture and sexuality keeps surprising its expat community as well as people doing business in the country. Elle Middle East, the women’s magazine headquartered in Beirut, had to remove its English-language issue from newsstands in the UAE last month after censors chastised it for articles with sexual content. An article on “sex buddies” was hastily removed from the next issue and the editorial team has now had to guarantee there will be no more talk of sex in their magazine’s pages.
The local press has learnt to play by the rules though. In regards to the Sex and the City ban, the real questions have been avoided (for example as to whether Abu Dhabi paid to be included in the story as part of a marketing strategy, and then backtracked on the deal). Instead articles speculate on the beneficial economic revenue the film may have by encouraging viewers watching it in the West to visit the country.
And here is the paradox – does Abu Dhabi think a movie which it will probably ban, but which is promoted as being set in the country, really help foster a positive global brand for the country?
As surreal as these situations get, there are no signs the Emirates are planning to soften their rules. As the book distributor puts it, “If the Louvre and the Guggenheim, two bastions of western culture have accepted not to show paintings containing any nudity when they open in Abu Dhabi, how can we push for such things?”