The recent controversy over Durham Student Mathew Hedges, who was jailed for life during a research trip to the United Arab Emirates, was as shocking as it was worrying for all those involved in studying and working in the Middle East. Fortunately, Mathew was pardoned and ‘granted clemency’ following accusations of spying. However, the story brings to the limelight the wealth of different laws and customs in the UAE which have potentially serious consequences for travellers.
The UAE is a popular destination; over 1.5 million British people journey here every year and very rarely run into trouble. For many, the country is synonymous with the glamourous sky-scrapers of Dubai or the oil-rich capital of Abu Dhabi. However, make sure you are aware of these little-known laws if you’re choosing to travel, study or work in this wealthy Muslim country.
Cases of sexual assault happen relatively rarely, but in the UAE diverse attitudes towards sex, marriage and alcohol can make it much harder for victims to prove that sexual relations were forced. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice pages highlight a case from 2013 in which a Norwegian woman, after reporting her rape to Dubai police, was actually convicted for sex outside of marriage and illegally consuming alcohol.
In fact, all sex outside of marriage is illegal, and becoming pregnant outside of marriage could also get you (and your partner) arrested or deported. Doctors may ask for proof during ante-natal checks and authorities may compare the marriage date against the estimated date of conception! Clearly, any kind of PDA is probably not the safest idea, and there have even been several arrests for kissing in public.
Although cities such as Dubai are famed for their nightlife, being under the influence of alcohol in public is actually illegal (and likely to cause problems for the classic British holidaymaker), so you should only buy alcohol in licensed venues. Penalties for drug-related offenses are even more severe; residual amounts of drugs in your blood stream could count as possession, whilst drug-trafficking can lead to the death penalty.
Danger lies on the road too. The World Health Organisation has reported that UAE drivers are almost seven times more likely to be killed than here in the UK, whilst offensive gestures and bad language could land you with a jail sentence or lead to deportation.
Check out VISA requirements before going. If you apply for a residence visa, you’ll have to take a blood test, and testing positive for HIV or hepatitis will get you detained or deported. Make sure you cancel your work visa before leaving the country permanently; if not, you could receive the label of an ‘absconder’ and you could be arrested if you return to the UAE – even in transit to another country!
So before you enjoy UAE’s ultramodern shopping centres, extravagant entertainment attractions or vast natural deserts, make sure you get travel aware. Travelling is an amazing way to increase cultural awareness, but probably best to start the process before crossing that law in the UAE.