"Knowing the Law” Won’t Protect Travelers From Being Jailed in the UAE
Reports of travellers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make the news. Because the UAE has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a modern business and tourist destination, this continuous news drip makes local officials and lawyers defensive. Instead of fixing the problem, they have decided to explain that this isn’t the UAE’s fault. In at least one recent news article published by state-controlled media, officials have claimed that the real problem is that travellers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.
But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travellers who don’t have a handbook of UAE laws. The problem is that, first, the UAE’s laws are unclear and unpredictably enforced and, second, people can be detained without warning for some harmless act and then be denied the right to defend themselves.
The case of Jamie Harron illustrates this point to a farcical degree. While on a two-day stopover in Dubai this July, Harron, 27, from Scotland, visited a bar. According to Harron, he touched a man’s hip while preventing a drink from spilling. That man took offence and called the police. Harron was detained and charged with drinking alcohol and “public indecency” solely on the basis of the man’s complaint. Harron, who was granted bail after five days in jail, has lost his job and has racked up over £30,000 ($40,000) in legal bills. The judge handed him a 30-day jail sentence for the charge of drinking alcohol. He’s now waiting for a judgment on the “public indecency” charge on October 22.
Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have mattered if Harron knew the law because the UAE's alcohol laws are not consistently enforced. Though Dubai markets itself as a great place to drink, and thousands of tourists do so in the city’s many bars, it’s illegal for tourists to consume alcohol. The catcher is that the law is only enforced some of the time, and there’s no telling when or who will be targeted.
Knowing the law wouldn’t have helped Harron avoid a charge of “public indecency” for touching the man’s hip, either. The vagueness of UAE laws means that anyone can find any action “offensive” and have you detained just by complaining to the police. Recently, individuals have been prosecuted for a handshake, posting a picture of a fox on Facebook, or taking pictures of a local racetrack or even just taking pictures of the sunset. In the UAE, someone could find the way you walk, the way you breathe, or the way you laugh “offensive” and have you locked up with just his word against yours.
Once detained, you will be unable defend yourself because there’s no due process. Police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence against you, and you can be denied access to an attorney (who can’t do much to help you anyway) while judges go along with it all.
Once you’ve been locked up, you then also fall victim to the chaos of UAE courts. Judges fail to show up for work, so after spending a whole day sitting in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear, your case will be postponed again and again over a period of months while you languish in a cell. Jamie Harron was lucky enough to get bail, but his conviction for drinking alcohol was made “in absentia” because it didn’t occur to any court official to inform him of the date of his trial.
That the spate of detentions is due to arbitrary enforcement of the law and not ignorance becomes very clear when you take into account the fact that people with connections to influential officials like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba can flout the country’s laws with impunity while ordinary guys like Jamie Harron get hit hard. Until the UAE has a justice system that is predictable, accountable, and transparent, “knowing the law” will not save you from the nightmare of being thrown in jail for any reason or no reason at all.