Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?

Attracted by the sun, sea, glamour and glitz many British people visit or choose to live and work in Dubai. With over 700 luxury hotels, some neck-creakingly tall buildings, tax-free salaries, futuristic design, high-end malls the appeal is obvious. At any given time, approximately a 100,000 British people live and work in Dubai and the UAE, and on average anywhere between half a million and one million British tourists visit annually.

However, the glamour and seductive appeal of Dubai (and the Emirates generally) disguises a dark side: it’s legal system and laws. An increasing number of British people are often unsuspectingly falling foul of these laws with at times devastating consequences. The UAE’s legal system is founded upon civil law principles (mostly influenced by Egyptian law) and Islamic Sharia law, the latter constituting the guiding principle and source of legislation. The laws are, however, often vague, confusing and arbitrarily applied.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Offices (FCO) British behaviour abroad report (2014) found a 30 per cent rise in the number of Britons arrested in the UAE between 2012 and 2014 and this despite a drop of more than a third in the number of British tourists to the UAE in the same period. The report found that the UAE was the fourth most likely country in which UK citizens would require consular assistance. The mere accusation of wrongdoing can have serious consequences; as Scottish electrician Jamie Harron discovered. He was sentenced to 3 months in jail for public indecency after he accidentally touched a man in a bar.

Afsana Lachaux, a former British civil servant, had her son taken from her while living in the UAE. Having moved there for a new life, events soon took a nasty turn. Her husband became abusive, and she felt that she had no choice but to flee with her son. However, instead of supporting her she found that the authorities and the legal system favoured her husband. The women’s shelter that she fled to told her husband where she was, and the courts dismissed her protestations and witnesses.

I connected with Afsana via twitter she tells me she ‘left the UAE in 2014 and is in the midst of legal proceedings here and in France to try and get the Dubai sharia divorce overturned and have some rights to see and speak to Louis. So far the U.K. has refused me jurisdiction.’ For her ‘the most despicable thing is that UK courts endorse the UAE legal system.’ I can’t imagine anything much worse for a mother to experience than to have her child taken from her.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) have highlighted issue’s facing women if they are embroiled in a legal dispute with their husband. HRW note that UAE Law is applied in a way which discriminates against women. It’s permissible, for example, for a husband to physically chastise his wife and a woman can’t work without the husbands permission. The NGO Detained in Dubai which helps Western expats with legal problems in the UAE warns that it is risky for women to report crimes such as rape to the police ‘The victim can be jailed themselves or subject to retaliatory accusations that can lead to lengthy detentions or legal proceedings.  One thing that rings true is that the system and its applications are volatile.’

Shezanne Cassim, found himself in a maximum-security prison in the middle of the desert for nine months after the authorities accused him of threatening national security because he created a sketch comedy parodying teenagers in Dubai and posted it on YouTube. Marc Owen Jones, Gulf expert formerly at Exeter University tells me:

‘In cases of national security, there is far more scope for a lack of transparency and accountability, which can increase the likelihood of politicised charges based on International relations, personal vendettas, paranoia and other motivations.’

Alas, in recent months Durham University PhD student Matthew Hedges who was carrying out research on UAE security policies was arrested on spying charges after one of his interviewees apparently reported him to the authorities. He had been held in solitary confinement since he was detained in May.

Recently released he remains in the UAE (his passport likely confiscated) pending legal proceedings. Some say that often in cases where expats are arbitrarily detained there is little support from the British consulate where the standard response is ‘we cannot interfere in the legal processes or prison systems of other countries’. In the case of Matt Hedges, however, Jeremy Hunt is now involved.

Commenting on the Matthew Hedges case, Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch opines:

“The UAE invests considerable time and money painting itself as a progressive and tolerant country, but Hedges case shows the face of an autocratic government with a fundamental lack of respect for the rule of law…UAE rulers cannot claim to preside over a global knowledge and education hub while locking up academics for months in solitary confinement.”

For most of us visiting Dubai and the UAE we may have a wonderful and trouble-free time. However, it’s worth remembering that behind some fairy-tales lurks a nightmare.