Essam Al Tamimi, founder and senior partner of Dubai law firm Al Tamimi & Co., stated in a recent interview that the UAE’s laws against acts such as kissing in public and gesticulating rudely while driving are “silly.”
He couldn’t be more right, not least because falling oil revenues mean that the UAE can no longer turn a blind eye to the costs imposed on its economy by the country’s dysfunctional justice system . If the UAE is serious about turning to tourism and foreign investment to supplant oil as major sources of revenue, it can’t afford a reputation as a place where residents and visitors are vulnerable to criminal prosecution for things like displays of affection, “belittling” handshakes , swearing on WhatsApp , or posting a picture of a fox on Facebook .
More tangibly, the laws at issue come with a large price tag. According to Al Tamimi, processing such claims costs UAE courts an average of US $27,000 per case. That money could be put to better use, not least to implement a better-functioning justice system.
At the same time, not making the police blare their sirens and come running for every smooch or raised middle finger would also allow them more time to go after real criminals. One of the few career criminals I met at Bur Dubai jail—unlike the many people in there who had been detained for things like consuming alcohol or trying to quit their jobs —was a fraudster who claimed to have been stealing credit-card information from tourists at local hotels for years. He said that the large majority of his criminal activity—and the fraud network of which he was a part—remained undetected by Dubai Police. In an example of the UAE’s justice system’s irrationality, the fraudster claimed to have received a four-month sentence while the person who posted the picture of a fox on Facebook faces a year in prison.
Al Tamimi says that the UAE has been considering the introduction of “tourist courts” to fast-track these “silly” prosecutions. That is far from ideal, however, because it only sidesteps the issue of the archaic laws instead of jettisoning them altogether, and it doesn’t help investors or anyone else who isn’t a tourist. Nonetheless, reducing the sort of acts at issue to minor infractions would, at least, be a small stepping-stone to rationality.
It doesn’t make logical or fiscal sense for the justice system to prosecute people for kissing, or shaking hands, or using certain emojis . It wastes time and money, and it doesn’t present an inviting image to tourists and investors. It’s time for the UAE to modernize its laws.
Reports of travelers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make 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 travelers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.
But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travelers 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 offense 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.
Dubai cops have locked up a tourist for drinking at a bar.
Jamie Harron, a 27-year-old British tourist is facing a three-year jail sentence in Dubai after allegedly putting his hand out in a bar to stop himself spilling his drink and touching a man’s hip. That man called the police.
Harron’s case is yet another example of how vulnerable tourists are to being arbitrarily detained in the UAE, where merely an accusation is enough to have someone jailed. Harron was charged with drinking alcohol even though he was at a bar that is permitted by the government to sell alcohol to patrons, including tourists. The Dubai government portrays the city as a modern and liberal tourist haven, but Harron’s case shows how tourists and residents are at constant risk just for merely drinking at the very hotels and other establishments the government promotes.
Harron is now facing charges of “drinking alcohol” and “public indecency.” Harron was in a jail for five days before being released on bail, but has since been trapped in the UAE for three months. He has lost his job and racked up over £30,000 (approximately $39,000) in legal fees and expenses.
Harron was expected to show up for a court hearing last Sunday, but the court moved the hearing date without informing him. Harron has now reportedly been sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for failing to show up.
UAE court proceedings are a shambles. There’s no due process, so anyone who doesn’t like your face can get you detained just by complaining to the police. Once they’re locked up, prisoners aren’t informed that they’re due in court until the morning of the hearing, judges don’t show up for work and even court clerks are completely unaware of the judge’s whereabouts or which cases are to be tried on that day. Prisoners are often not brought to their hearings by the police. It is not surprising that Harron has become a victim of the Dubai justice system’s own mismanagement.
Until the UAE brings its justice system into the modern era, visitors and residents remain at constant risk.