December 9 was the opening day of the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival (“DIFF”), the Dubai government’s flagship effort to establish the city as a hub for film. The list of international film-industry personalities linked to this year’s DIFF is impressive—Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Deneuve, and Naseeruddin Shah will receive awards—and films by directors working in the region will be showcased. Attention will be drawn to how the UAE has recently served as a filming location for a number of high-profile Hollywood productions—Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Furious 7, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Trek Beyond.
The Dubai government’s efforts to present an image of openness to film through DIFF, however, conceals a stark double-standard by which Hollywood blockbusters are courted while homegrown creative expression is subject to harsh arbitrary restrictions.
In April 2013, I was detained by Dubai Police because of an amateur comedy video I made that parodied teenagers in Dubai’s Satwa district, not far from where I grew up. The video poked fun at how those teenagers wanted to appear tough despite being utterly harmless.
Nonetheless, the officer who detained me—Captain Mohammed Juma Al Sayegh of the Cyber Crimes Department—accused me of being part of an international conspiracy to spread the false impression that Dubai was dangerous and lacked a police force. As a result of Captain Al Sayegh’s absurd arbitrary assignment of false accusations to a video that was clearly humorous and even made other officers laugh, I was detained for the next nine months.
Ironically, I was being held without charge or bail at Abu Dhabi’s maximum-security Al Sadr Prison for making a comedy video while DIFF 2013 was being held an hour’s drive up the E11 motorway, ostensibly to promote filmmaking in Dubai.
Though I was imprisoned for supposedly trying to show that Dubai lacked a police force, Tom Cruise was honored at DIFF 2011 for his role in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a movie—made with government encouragement—that portrayed Dubai as a playground for rogue arms dealers and foreign agents who are free to operate in the emirate without any interference from the police. Since then, Furious 7, which features outlaws running amok in Abu Dhabi with no sign of the police, was also filmed in the country with the support of the Abu Dhabi government.
It’s incongruous that I was thrown in prison for allegedly making the UAE look dangerous with a video showing youths throwing a sandal at a wall while the government endorsed a movie that depicts a terrorist assassin firing an assault rifle and grenade launcher with impunity in downtown Abu Dhabi .
This contradiction sends the message that rather than being a sincere effort to encourage film, DIFF is merely a publicity exercise calculated to parade Hollywood celebrities and offer the illusion of the UAE’s commitment to film. Freej’s Mohammed Saeed Harib and director Ali F. Mostafa, for example, have shown that UAE filmmakers have no shortage of ability, but the UAE’s film industry will never realize its full potential as long as officials continue to arbitrarily restrict local creative expression.It’s a perennial irony that DIFF always coincides with International Human Rights Day, when, on December 10 each year, the world honors the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its protection of free expression. Unless the UAE embraces a sincere desire to nurture a film industry of substance, Hollywood actors flying into the UAE for DIFF will, oddly, continue to be the face of UAE film, while homegrown expression is stifled.
Heading to the 2017 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF)? I mean why not, right? DIFF does a great job of celebrating art and expression.
All right, I’m kidding. The government-run DIFF only pretends to do that. DIFF is more an attempt to launder Dubai’s image than a true film festival aimed at encouraging creative expression.
So what’s really going on away from the stage and cinema lights? Here are 10 things to know about free expression in Dubai.
1: Local filmmakers
must get their scripts approved by the government
Sadly, a lot of interesting things happen in Dubai that are not made into films because Big Brother will say "No." The restrictions aren’t only limited to film— books are subject to censorship too.
2: Censorship is rife.
Nudity and other things that are “harmful to national security ” are censored out of movies playing in local theaters, but the state-sanctioned DIFF conveniently screens uncensored films . Meanwhile, in 2012, Dubai residents were left fuming that they couldn’t watch Game of Thrones .
3: Posting photographs of people without their consent is a
How great would it be to take a picture of you at DIFF and post it on Instagram? Sounds harmless enough, but all it takes is one person in the crowd to report your actions, and off to jail you go. Extra time in the slammer if you’ve had any alcohol.
4: There is no freedom of the press in the UAE.
Journalists are detained , interrogated, blindfolded, forced to give up their equipment, and expelled from the country for reporting on things the government doesn’t want you to see. But some of them are first given the opportunity to turn snitch against their fellow journos for “ Some fucking good money .”
5: If you post anything online about something the government doesn’t want you to see—like heavy
, one of Dubai’s skyscraper fires, or car accidents—you could be fined and jailed indefinitely.
That’s right, the sun always shines in Dubai.
7: Watch what you tweet.
You can be jailed for “defamatory” tweets (even if you were in jail at the time and had no internet access!). And if you think using other messaging apps is safe, think again— sending a middle-finger emoji on Whatsapp can land you in jail too.
8: Dubai’s government doesn’t limit its promotional tools to just film festivals.
Earlier this year, the Dubai government launched the Dubai font to much international fanfare, urging social media users to promote the font by using the hashtag #Expressyou. Buried in the terms and conditions was a warning that the font could not be used in any manner that goes against UAE “ public morals ” and that users “irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai.” Court!? For using a font?
9: Posting video of a government official assaulting a man in the street is a serious offense.
If civic responsibility is your thing and you’ve filmed a government official committing a violent assault on the street and now want to post the video on YouTube to expose the injustice, watch out! It’s illegal and you will face more serious penalties than the person committing the assault!
10: You can’t predict what can get you in trouble.
Just ask the guy who found himself in court facing a year in jail and a $2772 fine for posting a picture of a fox (that’s right, the animal) on Facebook. The man’s friends took offense, called the cops, and—with UAE laws being as vague as they are—he was up against a “defamation” charge.
Enjoy DIFF, but be aware that, in Dubai, expressing yourself can get you thrown into a very uncomfortable prison where there are definitely no movie nights.
Planning a trip to Dubai? Looking forward to hitting up some of Dubai’s hip bars and enjoying a few drinks while you’re there? Before you go, you should know that Dubai’s been in the news lately because of its tendency to arbitrarily throw people in jail for things like drinking alcohol.
Local officials maintain that the problem is that tourists are ignorant of the law. But the truth is that Dubai’s antiquated shambles of a justice system, like a bad case of tile grout, needs serious professional cleaning. Dubai’s laws are vague, confusing, and arbitrarily enforced.*
So, if getting jailed for a normal activity—like drinking at a bar in Dubai—isn’t really your thing, there are a few things you should know about the law to avoid from becoming, shall we say, “unavoidably detained.”
Here are 10 things to know about drinking in Dubai:
1: You may not drink or possess alcohol in Dubai
without an alcohol license
Where do you get one? See Point 2.
2: Visitors are
for an alcohol license.
Read Point 1 again and scratch your head.
3: Drinking alcohol without a license is a jailable offense.
How much jail time are we talking about? A local newspaper says six months , but a Chief Justice says five years . Is the Chief Justice just having a bad day? Do Dubai justice-system officials simply make things up as they go along? Are those things mutually exclusive? You would be wise to ponder.
4: You are not allowed to have
alcohol in your body when in public.
When you’ve had some bubbly on the plane and land at the airport with alcohol in your system, welcome to Dubai! You’ve just committed your first jailable offense.
5: When you buy alcohol at the airport duty free, you’ve just committed your second jailable offense.
And you haven’t even left the airport yet! Seriously, stop.
6: If you’re a tourist,
it’s illegal to drink at a bar
Even if you’re at a hotel bar and everyone around you is a fellow tourist knocking back shot after shot, it’s not legal for you to drink (and everyone else is breaking the law too). Sure, no-one’s getting handcuffed and thrown into the back seat of a cop car right now, but are you willing to bet your freedom, your job, or your life on the odds that your luck will hold?
7: Thinking about drinking while being Muslim? Sorry,
No license for you!
8: Thinking about attending a house party? Then you’d better hope the neighbors don’t report the party.
If they do, be prepared to spend months in an overcrowded, maggot-infested jail sleeping on a sweat, blood, and pus-stained mattress while prosecutors “investigate.”
9: A mere accusation of wrongdoing is enough to draw police attention.
If that random guy you touched to avoid spilling your drink accuses you of sexual assault and calls the cops and you have alcohol in your system, you can now look forward to going to jail for sexual assault and drinking illegally!
10: Even Dubai’s judges admit
the alcohol license and laws are confusing
Would you trust a heart surgeon who couldn’t tell the difference between your heart and your rectum? Trusting a judge in Dubai poses a similar conundrum.
If you’re the adventurous type, have fun while you’re in Dubai. But not too much fun...unless you’re prepared to have your weekend trip turned into an unknowably long tour of Dubai’s awful jail cells.*Author’s note: As much as those officials will blame you for not knowing the law, I was raised in Dubai and even I can’t say for sure what the law on drinking actually is. The relevant law isn’t officially published anywhere that mere mortals can access (just try doing a web search for it—just try). The best I can do is tell you what the state-controlled local media says is the law.