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Danger in the Gulf: Expats in Legal Jeopardy

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office report (2014) found a 30 per cent rise in the number of Britons arrested in the UAE since 2012

The Matthew Hedges case is just one more example of how British and Western expats in the UAE can fall foul of its archaic, arbitrary and inconsistent legal system.

Attracted by the sun, glamour and glitz many British people visit or choose to live and work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Dubai (with over 700 luxury hotels) is a particularly popular destination for British expats.

Approximately a 100,000 British people are living in the UAE, and on average anywhere between half a million and 1 million British tourists visit annually.

However, the glamour of the UAE disguises a dark side: it’s legal system and laws. An increasing number of British people are unsuspectingly falling foul of these laws with at times devastating consequences.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office report (2014) found a 30 per cent rise in the number of Britons arrested in the UAE since 2012

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.

For example, it is illegal for tourists to drink at a bar in Dubai: however, on most nights one would find large numbers of tourists doing precisely that. Strictly speaking, an alcohol permit is required to drink, but visitors are not allowed to obtain one.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s  British behaviour abroad report (2014) found a 30 per cent rise in the number of Britons arrested in the UAE since 2012 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. After suffering domestic abuse, she fled with her son. However, instead of helping her the authorities placed a travel ban on her and awarded custody of the son to the father.

Speaking to Byline Times, Afsana explained how 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 Afsana ‘the most despicable thing is that UK courts endorse the UAE legal system.’

Human Rights Watch (HRW) have highlighted issue’s facing women if they are embroiled in a legal dispute with their husband. HRW note that The UAE Law is applied in a way which discriminates against women. It’s permissible, for example, for a husband to physically chastise his wife.

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.’ the NGO told Byline Times. ‘One thing that rings true is that the system and its applications are volatile.’

More recently, Durham University PhD student Matthew Hedges, who was carrying out research on the UAE security policies was arrested on spying charges. He was held in solitary confinement since he was detained in May and was only released in late November. 

Commenting on the Matthew Hedges case, HRW said: ‘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.’

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