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The secret poppers trade fuelling Dubai’s gay scene

What happens when poppers go underground in the desert? Dubai’s gay men are desperate for alkyl nitrate in a drug-free state

Gay sex may be illegal in Dubai, but that hasn’t prevented a sizable gay scene flourishing. It’s not even that secret once you know where to look. Expats and locals meet in certain hotel bars, or cruise Deira Public Park looking to see who’s around. Invite-only parties take place in the luxury private apartments that line the Palm Islands and most get around the ban on gay mobile apps by downloading a VPN (virtual private network).

Like the UK, where the rise of chemsex has been well documented, Dubai is also gripped by an underground drug culture. Only the gay men aren’t looking for GHB, crystal meth or any of the other drugs associated with the UK subculture. They’re looking for poppers. Poppers is big business in Dubai. And like paracetamol, codeine and heroin, it is totally illegal. But that doesn’t stop gay men wanting to get their hands on it.  

“There is such a demand,” says Geoff, a 36-year-old British expat who works for a global bank in Dubai. “Guys talk about poppers a lot on the apps. People talk about the need for having poppers when they come round and see you. I was having ‘interactions’ one time with an Egyptian guy I met online. He was so obsessed with having poppers it became the whole narrative while we were in bed. And at one point he put it up his nose and burnt the inside of his nostrils – he was so keen to have it. There’s such a weird demand for it and I think it drives people’s behaviour.”

Poppers – or alkyl nitrites in liquid form – have been around for decades, originally sold as a treatment for angina in little capsules that were snapped open – or popped – which is how it got its name. The gay scene adopted it in the 1970s as a fun party drug that offers a quick high. However, in Dubai the perception of poppers has shifted.

Whereas gay venues can remain permanently open in the UK and openly advertise their function, things are different in the Emirate of Dubai. Strict homophobic laws necessitate any gay gatherings to be more clandestine. The venues are not permanent gay bars. Instead, one of the more relaxed hotel bars is adopted for the night. Sometimes the owners and other straight customers are not even aware – groups of men hanging out together is a common sight in Arab countries where the gender divide is more culturally enforced. It also goes without saying there is no kissing in public and certainly no poppers. This lack of poppers in a more social environment has changed the drug’s image in Dubai, says Geoff.

“I think what is different is that in the UK poppers get done in gay clubs and it’s a bit fun,” he says. “That isn’t really how they are used in Dubai because the gay scene repurposes venues to be a gay venue for a night. Poppers are purely used for a sexual angle.”

This “sexual angle” was famously explained by American psychiatrist Thomas P Lowry in his 1982 essay Psychosexual Aspects of the Volatile Nitrites, originally published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. “The inhalable nitrites may be the nearest thing to a true aphrodisiac,” Lowry wrote. Importantly, he later notes that when under the influence “anal penetration becomes easier, probably from a combination of muscular relaxation and decreased pain perception.” 

“In Dubai the scarcity of poppers appears to drive the need for them. And the lack of any in a club environment gives the drug a darker, less frivolous aura”

Crucially it is this that makes poppers the most sought after drug by gay men in Dubai; more than coke or ecstasy. Or as Geoff puts it: “It serves a purpose in the bedroom.” Of course, the use of poppers during sex isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But due to the physiological way it facilitates anal penetration, it is more commonly adopted by those who prefer to be the sexually ‘passive’ partner. This explains why some people ‘need’ poppers, while others remain rather indifferent. What’s interesting about Dubai is the scarcity of poppers appears to drive that need. And the lack of any in a club environment gives the drug a darker, less frivolous aura.

Dale, a 35-year-old lawyer from south London, also moved to Dubai two years ago for work. When he arrived he was amazed by how “obsessed” the gay scene was with poppers. “I haven’t really used poppers since my early 20s when I first came out. Then in Dubai suddenly there were all these people messaging saying: “do you have poppers?” It’s very different from the UK. You realise that it’s seen as very exclusive and exciting to them, unlike in the UK where we’re like ‘oh, yeah – poppers. Whatever.’”

At this point Geoff joins in: “If you’re chatting with someone online and they want to have sex with you, they may say quite early on “do you have poppers?”

“Or do you like poppers, sometimes – if they are being a little more careful,” Dale says.

“Yeah, they’ll ask if you want to use poppers in a way that they wouldn’t in the UK because in Dubai it’s perceived as a secret,” says Geoff. “But it’s a ‘thing’, you know? It’s sought after.”

A quick look at the online message boards associated with the Dubai’s gay scene confirms this phenomenon. ‘RK’ writes on HelpMeDubai: “Indian hairy/46/versatile seeking guys for fun. Into poppers fun as well and have them (sic).” Ali, who describes himself as “24 vers looking for the same around my age,” adds in caps “IM LOOKING FOR POPPERS. IF ANYONE SELL POPPERS EMAIL ME PLEASE.” A bit further down Steve asks: “Where can I buy sex poppers in dubai please advise me. (sic)”

It’s a good question. Where can you buy poppers in Dubai if they are illegal? On the gay apps, of course. “People will find out about someone who sells it through an app and message them,” explains Geoff. “It’s like £40 or £50 for a bottle.”

“He was so obsessed with having poppers it became the whole narrative while we were in bed. And at one point he put it up his nose and burnt the inside of his nostrils – he was so keen to have it”

But if you’re worried about getting caught up in a sting operation carried out by Dubai’s notorious secret police, then the safest way to get your hands on a bottle is to control your own supply – by smuggling it into the country from Europe or America. Of course, this approach favours the expats who have the luxury of being able to travel to and from Europe or America. But what about the large Lebanese population that make up Dubai’s gay scene?

For this group, Visa restrictions and other factors mean frequent trips to Europe and America are unlikely, leaving most with little option than to source poppers on the Dubai black market. It explains why poppers have grown into such a prized commodity, and why some will pay almost any price for a classic brand like Jungle Juice, Buzz, Rush or Hard On.

So, could Dubai provide an insight into the UK’s own future? The Psychoactive Substances Bill 2015 – which MPs voted in favour of earlier this month – comes into effect this April. The bill doesn’t include poppers on its list of exemptions, despite fierce campaigning from the gay community or Conservative MP Crispin Blunt describing the omission as “fantastically stupid. The maximum sentence for anyone found producing, supplying, possessing or importing poppers would be up seven years’ imprisonment. Would this spell the end of the UK gay scene’s love affair with the drug? “They would go underground,” Geoff says matter of factly, “exactly the same as in Dubai.” So the law wouldn’t stop people using them? Geoff shakes his head. “It’s a necessity for gay life, so people will pay what they need to buy them.”