Israelis Should Watch Their Step in the UAE, It's Easy to Wind Up in Jail, Attorney Warns

Founder of legal assistance organization Detained in Dubai warns deal with Israel could help whitewash the UAE, a country where you can get jailed for a bad review on Twitter

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The Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, UAE, on January 20, 2011.
The Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, UAE, on January 20, 2011. Credit: Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

“You married a horse, you idiot,” Laleh Shahravesh wrote on Facebook in 2016, after her husband filed for divorce and she learned he planned to marry another woman in Dubai. “I hope you go under the ground, you idiot. Damn you. You left me for this horse,” she wrote in another post.

Three years later, her ex-husband, a banker from Portugal, died of a heart attack at age 51. Shahravesh, who lived in Britain with her daughter, flew to Dubai for the funeral, and was detained at the airport. Under United Arab Emirates law, a person can be jailed for making defamatory statements on social media, even if several years have passed and even if the post was written in another country.

Shahravesh’s case is only one of some 10,000 handled by the British organization Detained in Dubai since its founding in 2008, according to the organization’s founder Radha Stirling. The group helps people with legal problems in the Middle East but primarily in the UAE, including both civil and criminal cases. Its clients include tourists, businesspeople, people on relocation, investors and more, stated Stirling, who is British and American. Anyone can easily get into trouble in the UAE, she says.

Shahravesh could have been jailed for two years, but ultimately was freed after paying a fine of about $800, and returned home to Britain after a month. The story drew significant media attention. The story is crazy, but it’s not such an aberration, states Stirling.

She cites the case of Perry Coppins, a 61-year-old British man who was detained by the Dubai customs authorities in 2018 because he had “too many” antidepressants and thus raised suspicions, even though he had legal prescriptions for them and planned to be abroad for six months.

Radha Stirling.

There’s also the case of Jamie Harron, a Scottish man who was accused of public indecency for touching a local businessman’s hip in a crowded bar in 2017. Harron said he brushed the man by mistake while making his way through the bar holding a drink. The Emirati reportedly withdrew his complaint but Harron was nevertheless convicted of public indecency and sentenced to three months in prison. A day after the conviction, Harron was freed on order of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE prime minister and the ruler of Dubai.

Stirling founded Detained in Dubai after a colleague was jailed there, and she led the campaign to free him. The media attention from that case brought appeals from other people seeking legal help in Dubai and the region. Alongside her work with the organization, she also works in risk assessment for businesses interested in investing in the Gulf and with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The organization handles various cases. Those involving tourists often relate to accusations of alcohol consumption, or inappropriate conduct or dress, she says. And then there are the cases involving the UAE’s cybercrime laws, under which a person can be jailed for sending a message or email that’s considered rude or coarse, even if it’s to a friend or romantic partner.

Likewise, criticizing the regime is illegal; it’s even illegal to discuss the case of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, whose father had ordered Harron’s release. Sheikha Latifa was reportedly abducted and brought back to Dubai while trying to flee the UAE in 2018. Journalists and human rights activists are at risk, as is anyone who voices criticism online, Stirling says.

And then there are the risks of doing business. A foreigner can be arrested over a bounced check or debts, she says. Business conflicts between locals and foreigners are frequent, Stirling says, because Emiratis know how to deal with the authorities, and the foreigners pay the price. A single complaint is enough to send another to jail, particularly if it comes from an influential local, such as a police officer or a respected businessman. Around half of Detained in Dubai’s clients are businesspeople who had conflicts with a local partner, she says.

In many cases, a foreigner makes an investment in the UAE, and the local partners decide that they want full control, she says. That’s very easy for the local partner, while the foreigner winds up in jail or is forced to leave the country, she says. Most of these cases are never reported in the media.

Stirling’s organization works with foreign governments such as the United States or Canada, which pressure the UAE to free detainees, including those who have never been charged. It also uses the international press as a means of pressuring the UAE, which wants the West to see it as a safe place, she says.

The situation there has improved somewhat over the years, she notes – once women were jailed for reporting rape, but that’s beginning to change thanks to Detained in Dubai’s lobbying. It still happens, but less so, Stirling says.

But on the whole, things haven’t really changed, she states. The UAE claims to have changed, and while there have been minor amendments to its alcohol laws and other laws, but it’s ultimately a smoke screen, she says.

They present themselves as Western and modern, but it’s all marketing, she says. Sheikha Latifa’s kidnapping is an example of the UAE’s growing brazenness, she says. The UAE thinks it can get away with anything and that’s worrying, she states.

The deal with Israel, a democratic country, will help whitewash the UAE, giving it legitimacy to further violate human rights, she states. The UAE gains more than Israel, because the agreement frames it as an advanced country, when in practice it’s more similar to Saudi Arabia, she says.

Stirling says all this should serve as a warning for Israelis who visit Dubai – there is a lot of detention without charges, and a lot of xenophobia. The UAE is one of the most dangerous places for a Westerner to invest, and should a local make an accusation against an Israeli, the local will be treated much better.

She also warns Israelis to be careful about what they say online – there was a case of a man who was detained after tweeting that he’d received bad service from a local car rental agency, she notes.

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