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Weekend Pass

Liberty Ashore in Dubai

Kelly McEvers

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Looking forward to liberty
(Ricardo J. Reyes)
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People who've lived in Dubai a long time say they can tell a U.S. soldier from a mile away: short hair, backpack, always travels in three's.

These days, though, you don't see as many buzz cuts -- partly because a few months ago. Some Marines on leave in Dubai got into big trouble, says Claire Kelly, an Australian who's been based in Dubai for years.

"What I heard was that they were in a taxi, very drunk, and they were making some kind of obscene gestures to a lady that was driving a car," Kelly says. "This lady got offended, called the police, and they got pulled over and thrown into jail."

The Marines didn't know it at the time, but the woman in the car was a member of Dubai's royal family. I later confirmed the story with Navy officers.

"And after that incident, there was no shore leave for quite some time, for any ship that came through," Kelly says.

Even when the soldiers don't have shore leave, Kelly still gets to hang out with them -- she's the lead singer of a band specializing in cover tunes that's often invited to perform on Navy warships.

Kelly describes the gigs like this: "You've just got a complete view, standing up high on the stage, of the boat. Completely laden with aircrafts, the sun setting in the background, and people having fun."

The commanders won't let reporters into the port facilities, and they wouldn't comment for this story. One volunteer told me they don't want to bring attention to the fact that thousands of Americans are docking in Dubai every month.

So I had to try and catch the sailors around town. They've only recently been allowed to leave port again.

Their first stop was Dubai's main marble- and chandelier-decorated mall and its new indoor ski slope. I ask a couple of guys if they tried it.

"I snowboarded," says one.

"I fell, a lot of times," says another.

"He got soaking wet, I stayed pretty dry," says the first.

"It's definitely fun though," says the second. "It's kind of crazy when you can come over to the desert and ski in the middle of a mall."

In the Navy, it's not called r & r, it's called liberty. And your commanding officers make sure you know exactly what kind of liberty you have, another soldier tells me.

"'Liberty with a purpose.' That's what they say, liberty with a purpose."

I ask him what that means.

"It means that we're here to show that we have fun, but we're also responsible. We don't do anything stupid and get ourselves into trouble."

Since the Marines got into trouble with the royal family, sailors have been told to be on their very best behavior in Dubai, says one female firefighter.

"We can't walk around in spaghetti-strap tank tops or halter tops or miniskirts or Daisy-Duke shorts."

"We just got 'shorts liberty' this port," another sailor says. That means the guys don't have to wear long pants. "Before that, it had to be pants all the time." But most of them are wearing long pants anyway.

Down the road, at a bar next to the beach, I meet some guys from Louisiana and Texas who aren't necessarily on their best behavior. They're trying to do, well, more what you'd expect sailors to do with a little liberty, one tells me.

"I mean, we gotta get loose," he says. "Out to sea, we work very hard -- when we pull in, we gotta get loose. So, this is the place to do it."

I ask him what "kind of loose" he means.

"Loose, however you want," he says. "They got all types of loose. I'm not gonna get into that, but everybody knows what I'm talking about. You can get loose however you want to out here."

I ask him if it's expensive.

"Not really, I mean you can -- it's pretty much negotiable."

We get in a taxi to a hotel in the red-light district. But there's a problem: It's rush hour in Dubai.

"You need more than two hours to the hotel," the driver tells us.

The sailors decide to abort the mission. It turns out they don't want to miss curfew. They decide to just head back to port instead. On their best behavior after all...

These sailors all serve on the USS Harry Truman, an aircraft carrier based out of Norfolk, Va., that patrols the Persian Gulf. As they say, they're keeping an eye on Iran. So when they get a few days off, they mainly want to relax after long hours of work on the boat.

And the place to do that is one that feels familiar: the Hard Rock Cafe Dubai. Little do the soldiers know the Hard Rock is owned by a member of the bin Laden family.

The Australian singer, Claire Kelly, and her cover band headline the Hard Rock every night. Kelly knows these Americans in civilian clothes are sailors, but she's vague about it on stage.

"How many people are here from the states?" she says into the microphone. "This next song's for you guys."

The Hard Rock is packed with Filipina waitresses, British tourists and Indian expatriates who live here in Dubai. It seems like every other table has a plate of whipped cream sitting in front of a kid who's celebrating a birthday.

I meet up with the snowboarders: Brad from Baltimore and Chris from Philadelphia. They maintain guns and bombs on planes. Chris says he feels like he's learning something here in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"Once you hear the name 'Middle East,' automatically anybody thinks in their mind that the Middle East is guns and wars and suicide bombings and everything," he says. "And then you come to some place like the UAE and it's like, "Wow, everybody's not like this. Everybody that dresses like that is not like that.'"

This night, there aren't many Arabs at the Hard Rock. But Chris and Brad say they saw tons of Arabs in traditional dress at the mall. And earlier in the day, they volunteered with disabled Arab kids.

But after enough beers, Long Island iced teas and drinks called car bombs, "liberty with a purpose" starts to wear off -- and things get a little dark. One woman admits she was terrified when she saw other women in the mall who cover their faces. Another serviceman gets in a really nasty fight with his girlfriend outside. His friend starts hitting on everyone in sight.

Then a Green Day medley comes on -- this makes Brad think about his gal back home. "She met some other guy," he says. "You know, there's a grocery store called Food Lion? Yeah. I guess he makes more money than I do. Me and her were together for four years. They've been together for a month. And they're already engaged."

Kelly announces it's "last call for the bus." She's not supposed to say who the bus is for. But by now, everybody in the Hard Rock knows it's there to shuttle the drunk sailors back to port. One table of German tourists actually cheers when they hear the sailors are leaving.

Brad and Chris decide they'll stay for a while, and take a taxi back later. Just a few more songs, they say. Maybe the band doesn't sound that great, but that's not what matters, they tell me. What matters is that they sound just like home.

More stories from our Weekend Pass series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Sara - Stoilka Kisimova

    From Bulgaria now, 07/13/2009

    My nickname is Sara and I have been working at Hard Rock Cafe Dubai a few years. I agree with Michael Denning about some things like nobody respect them! They come to Dubai but they can visit only few places mostly Mall of Emirates and Hard Rock Cafe and they do shopping for 2 hours and after that they can drink only coz there is nowhere else to go! The American Navy was are best costemers for OAE but the government doesn't want to stand corrected!

    Good Luck to All!
    And Have fun!

    By Andrew Domino

    From Seattle, WA, 07/13/2008

    Mr. Denning, I don't see how Ms. McEvers was in any way mean-spirited. Having visited the UAE several times on board the USS Stennis I can attest for the accuracy of her report. She did fail to report that the "red-light" establishments are off limits to service members. Dubai is mostly a collection of shopping malls and American fast food chains. There are few activities aside from watching a movie or having a beer. Dump a boat full of young men and women on such a place after months at sea and they tend to act up a bit. Most sailors behave themselves (the dedicated drinkers don't leave the pier where booze is cheapest). The majority of sailors end up in the same places (Hard Rock, Mall of the Emirates) where they gather in large numbers, drink, and make a raucous; there are also plenty of smaller groups that discover Lebanese food, an out of the way Irish Pub, or just enjoy a book at Starbucks or Peat's.
    As for your comment on boats vs. ships, who cares! Yes the Truman is technically a "ship" but does the distinction really matter to the average listener. And for the record, the Navy still refers to its subs as "boats" despite the lack of oars.

    By Drew Domino

    From Seattle, WA, 07/13/2008

    Having been to Dubai and stationed on an aircraft carrier I can attest for the accuracy of the report. The criticisms are without merit.
    Boat, ship, who cares considering that many sailors stationed on aircraft carriers call it a boat themselves, even if that is technically wrong.
    All submariners refer to their subs as boats.


    From GREENBANK, WA, 07/12/2008

    The comments about Kelly McEver's article are right on. A member of the US Navy is a sailor. An aircraft carrier is a ship. Thanks Jill Brown

    By alaph 3

    From Birmingham, AL, 05/04/2008

    Dear Mrs. McEvers;

    Please note that the term soldier is not interchangeable with service member.

    A soldier is a service member serving in the Army.
    A marine is not a soldier. A sailor is not a soldier. An airman is not a soldier.
    I see this from time to time in the media and it frustrates me. I served with the Army and therefore was a soldier.

    Thank you

    By Michael Denning

    From Riverside, CA, 04/26/2008

    Dear Kelly McEvers, I thought your story, Liberty in Dubai, was very mean spirited and down the nose. America's service men and women deserve better. I'm sure Dubai, UAE, is generously compensated by our government for opening it's ports to our ships and service people. Oh yeah - it's not a boat, its a ship. Boats have oars.

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