A Tourist’s Paradise?

Hannah Godfrey

Reports emerged today that three British men have been held without trial for seven months and tortured in police custody in Dubai. British charity Reprieve announced the incident, claiming that the men were beaten and given electric shocks, as well as forced to sign documents in Arabic, a language which none of them understand, while being threatened by policemen wielding guns.[1] The Dubai police arrested the men in July last year, claiming to have found “spice,” a synthetic form of marijuana in their car. The men deny the charge of “consumption and possession with intent to distribute.” The Dubai police force has come under increasing scrutiny for the way it treats prisoners in its custody. The British Foreign Office demanded an investigation by the United Arab Emirates authorities after the death of a 39-year-old British man, Lee Brown, died while in police custody in April 2011. The authorities denied that officers played a role in Brown’s death.[2]

Laws are notoriously strict in the United Arab Emirates, which, although considered a paradise for tourists from all over the world, maintains a strict conservatism over drugs, alcohol, and public decency. As a Muslim nation, alcohol in particular is strictly regulated, with drinking legal only in licensed premises; public drunkenness can result in arrest.[3] Similarly, drug laws are strict, with a sentence of 4 years in prison for possession of an illegal substance, and the potential for the death penalty by firing squad if convicted of dealing.[4] The Independent also reports that on the day that the ban on “spice” came into effect, 35 Britons were arrested for possessing the drug.[5] Dubai’s public decency laws are famous around the world for imprisoning tourists for kissing in public, as well as the more notorious cases of couples having sex on the beach. With its highly westernized façade, it is unsurprising that British people are more likely to be arrested in the UAE than anywhere else on the planet.[6]

However, the problems are not simply confined to tourists. With 82 percent of its roughly 2.4 million population foreign-born in 2011, mainly migrant laborers from Africa and Asia, many western expatriates find themselves tangled up in the UAE’s justice system.[7] London-based charity Detained in Dubai claims on its website that 7 in 10 of the cases it handles concern bounced checks or other business-related charges.[8]

Growing international diplomatic pressure, and the financial problems that continue to affect the UAE’s economy after the financial crisis of 2008, will hopefully encourage the authorities to improve their treatment of foreign prisoners and improve their stained human rights record. In the mean, time, however, although many seem to regard Dubai as an extension of the West, with all the liberal attitudes associated with the United States and Europe, it is clear that tourists and expats alike must remain cognizant and respectful of the deep cultural values that Emiratis hold in order to remain out of trouble.

[1] http://www.reprieve.org.uk/press/2013_02_20_Brits_holiday_Dubai_police_tortured/

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13122910

[3] http://www.shelteroffshore.com/index.php/living/more/living-in-dubai-knowing-the-rules-10831

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/british-tourists-tortured-in-dubai-8503878.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.uaeinteract.com/docs/Abu_Dhabi_population_put_at_2.4_million/51581.htm

[8] http://detainedindubai.org/Detained_In_Dubai/Welcome.html