About this series:
This is the story of how the United Arab Emirates arrested me for doing something thousands of people do every day—posting a comedy video on YouTube. UAE officials jailed me for months without charge, denied me access to an attorney, and holed me up in a bleak maximum-security prison in the middle of the desert. My human rights were violated every step of the way, and I was eventually convicted of “endangering national security” during a flimsy trial. This is Part 2.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
My friends and I had posted our comedy video on YouTube in October 2012. For six months, it earned a modest number of views and overwhelmingly positive comments from local viewers who appreciated the humor and said it reminded them of their own childhoods. In making the video, I wanted to give Dubaians some home-grown entertainment that touched upon their own experiences and celebrated Dubai’s cultural peculiarities.
When Dubai Police detained me in April 2013, I hadn’t thought about the video in months. I had just started a new job as an aviation consultant at PwC. I was looking forward to continuing my work developing Dubai’s airline industry, as my mother and her colleagues had done since the 1970s. Little did I know that I would be accused of endangering UAE state security because of a video that had been online, playing to the positive comments of a local audience, for six months without incident.
Most UAE residents live in a bubble with no interaction with, or understanding of, the country’s justice system. You see the traffic police in their patrol cars. You see the police’s self-promoting, Hollywood-style publicity videos of mock chases involving sports cars, helicopters, and SWAT teams. And you assume that the officers handling investigations or security matters are well-trained and competent. But you have no idea that the police officer who takes statements might barely be able to read and write. You’re led to believe that the police officers know what they’re doing, and that if you do nothing wrong, they won’t harm you. I now know, all too well, just how wrong that perception was.
Captain Mohammed Juma Al Sayegh and the other Dubai Police officers who arrested and interrogated me shattered any belief I might have had that the UAE’s police officers were capable and professional. I was arrested simply because Captain Mohammed insisted—without any evidence at all—that my comedy video was a serious anti-UAE propaganda piece created as the result of a nefarious international conspiracy.
Despite the disclaimer at the start of the video making clear that it was fictional, and despite the obvious comedy, Captain Mohammed went out of his way to make these allegations. To make things worse, even though his job was to police internet crime, Captain Mohammed didn’t understand that YouTube users could take down their own videos or that YouTube wasn’t like a TV channel that people just turned on to watch whatever came on. And if that wasn’t enough, he then tried to spin his Inspector Clouseau -esque “investigation” to make it look like he had cunningly cracked open a dastardly plot against the UAE.
I didn’t discover just how much of an “Inspector Clouseau” Captain Mohammed was until after I returned to the United States. While I was imprisoned, I had almost no knowledge of the details of my case because prosecutors prohibited me from meeting with my attorney. But once I was back in Minnesota, I obtained a translation of the police and prosecution’s case file, which included Captain Mohammed’s arrest report. In the report, Captain Mohammed claimed that a complaint was filed by a private citizen on April 7, 2013, that he investigated the video in response and, within a few hours, had identified the participants and “tricked” them into being apprehended.
But the “private citizen” who filed the complaint was in fact Captain Mohammed’s cousin. Captain Mohammed had known about my video before the complaint was filed, and it took him an entire day of “undercover” work to find out my name even though it was clearly listed on the YouTube video description. And there was no “trickery” involved—he simply had another officer to call me and tell me to come to the station.
How did I know all this? Let’s start with Captain Mohammed’s claim that he began his “investigation” in response to a complaint.
“i have something goooood for you to load”
On April 6 2013, the day before I was detained, I received a message that had been sent to my YouTube channel’s Facebook fan page. The sender called himself “Mamadoo Al” and had a photo of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, as his profile picture. The message said, “Hi...i love your page about all the stuff happens in dubai i was wondering if you could interview me as well i have something goooood for you to load.” It was such a bizarre message that I chose to ignore it.
The Facebook message I received on April 6 2013.
I thought about that message throughout the nine months of my detention in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was too much of a coincidence that I would receive a strange message about my comedy video the day before I was thrown in jail. When I was released and returned to Minnesota in January 2014 (and had access to the internet again), I took another look at the message and the sender’s profile pictures. What I saw shocked me: the sender, “Mamadoo Al,” was none other than Captain Mohammed, the very officer who had detained me.
One of Captain Mohammed’s older Facebook profile pictures.
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.