State of temptation: British hedonists get into trouble in Dubai

Young Britons are flocking in thousands to the most liberal of the Arab emirates, drawn by its reputation as a party state. Many fall foul of laws that are far stricter than they had imagined. By Arifa Akbar & Nadeem Badshah
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It is 2am and the all-weekend beach party is in full swing. DJs turn tables as girls in bikinis rave to the drum'n'bass beat and revellers sprawl on silky white sands. This is the paradise beach of Fujairah, a purpose-built island off Dubai, where, increasingly, the world's revellers – and especially the UK's revellers – convene to let their hair down.

The parties are drawing a growing number of hedonistic Britons who eschew such downmarket destinations as Ayia Napa and Faliraki in favour of the more upmarket but surprisingly affordable pleasures of Dubai, with its luxury hotels and cheap weekend package deals. But what many may not realise is that the Gulf's premier party state has a "zero tolerance" drugs policy.

A growing number of British tourists have felt the full force of Islamic law for carrying even tiny quantities of drugs. The Labour peer Lord Ahmed is currently assisting the families of eight men under the age of 30 who have been arrested for alleged drug offences in Dubai. In today's Eastern Eye newspaper Lord Ahmed warns young visitors not to treat a holiday to Dubai with the same casual hedonism as a trip to Ibiza, and to avoid any "illicit" behaviour while they are on beach holidays there.

Addressing the one million British tourists, many of them Asians, who visit the Gulf state every year, he says that travellers should not forget that they are entering a country with very strict drugs laws. "My plea to parents is to ensure firstly that young children are not taking drugs... And don't go to the Middle East countries as there is a zero tolerance towards drugs.

"The men [detained] are mainly from Lancashire and Yorkshire. They were caught by a drug-scanning machine with the drugs in their pockets or in their socks. They are from decent families, some in business, who have done really well. They can be in a cell for months as a conviction doesn't happen overnight. In one particular case, the prosecution is asking every month for extra time, resulting in longer delays in the case."

The British-Pakistani men were allegedly caught with small amounts of cannabis or heroin. One of them, a 25-year-old who asked to be named only as Awaab, was arrested at Dubai airport last month for carrying cannabis. Carrying cannabis, however small the quantity, carries a blanket sentence of four years in the UAE.

Ashwin Mehra, 24, a British Indian who worked for a finance publishing company in Dubai for four months last year, said he was surprised to be stopped at Dubai airport for having a pharmaceutical medicine. "I had the flu so I had medicine with codeine in it, which they took from me. I have known people who had Night Nurse with them who have faced problems too. We in the West do not perceive things from an Arab point of view," he said.

While he enjoyed Dubai's party scene, he was concerned for those who flouted Islamic laws. "I had worked on the Greek islands before I went to Dubai so I'd seen that party scene. Dubai has a huge Western influence and is globalised with lots of bars, beach parties and nightclubs. But it also has Islamic laws, and if you put a foot wrong you might not be coming home.

"I saw some groups of young people that had more money than sense. I saw some drugs out there, although I was never involved. There were some people who smoked marijuana, which is taking a stupid risk. I've been with a group of people acting a bit silly because they were drunk who ended up spending four days in a prison cell.

"I can see the allure of Dubai. It has the most amazing white sandy beaches and man-made islands devoted to tourists and beach parties. But at the same time, visitors have to learn to behave in a certain way," he said.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said nine British nationals have been detained in Dubai in 2008 so far. Simon Goldsmith, spokesman for the British embassy in Dubai, added that 57 Britons were detained on drug-related charges in 2007.

"The UAE has severe penalties for drug offences and an absolute zero tolerance. We strongly advise people to check our travel advice before they travel. We offer a 24/7 service where we can advise on local procedures and provide a list of local lawyers who cover a range of issues. What we cannot do is intervene in the local legal process."

Catherine Wolthuizen, chief executive of Fair Trials International, which has issued travel warnings, said customs authorities in the country were using sensitive new equipment to conduct the most thorough searches on visitors.

"So many people now travel to Dubai and, as we're seeing, many have no idea what risks they're taking or their vulnerability to this very strict approach," she said. "What many travellers may not realise is that they can be deemed to be in possession of such banned substances if they can be detected in their urine or bloodstream, or even in tiny, trace amounts on their person."

The US embassy in Dubai has issued a warning that even having poppy seeds which are used for cooking in some countries, could lead to a prison sentence.

This week, a senior judge in Dubai welcomed the warnings issued to visitors. Judge Ali Al-Kaladari told the English-language paper, 7Days, that the strict laws were designed as a deterrent. "These laws help discourage anyone from carrying or using drugs. Even if the amount of illegal drugs found on someone is 0.05 grams, they will be found guilty," he said, adding that the penalty for dealing in illegal drugs was life in jail or even the death sentence.

Some have suggested it may be the growing hedonism in the state that has led officials to become more vigilant towards Westerners. High-profile "party people" such as Kate Moss and Puff Daddy have visited Dubai while some celebrities have even bought property there.

Dubai's transformation from a tiny Islamic outpost into a vibrant, relatively liberal Gulf state inhabited by large numbers of expatriates and tourists has helped create an economic boom but may have left local people feeling besieged or threatened.

The oil-rich state has maximised its reputation as a party state by creating "Westernised" districts such as Jumeriah. In Arab countries, anyone wanting to buy alcohol must first buy a licence. But the large seven-star hotels already have licences and incorporate nightclubs and bars within their premises. The beaches are filled with women who wear bikinis by day and skimpy outfits by night.

The indigenous Arab community, meanwhile, resides in far-removed districts such as Shahja, where women often wear headscarves and the call for prayer is a prominent feature in daily life.

Last year, a spate of incidents involving Westerners carrying recreational drugs included a British tourist, Keith Brown, who was arrested for possession of 0.003 grams of cannabis – less than the weight of a grain of sugar – and was jailed for four years.

Bert Tatham, a Canadian UN anti-narcotics official who advised the Afghan government on its fight against opium, was jailed for four years after 0.5 grams of hashish and two poppy seeds were found in his possession, although he was later pardoned.

The courts in Dubai are currently dealing with cases involving the Radio One DJ Raymond Bingham, also known as Grooverider, who was allegedly caught with just over two grams of cannabis; and a British television executive who was arrested last week for possessing cannabis.

Grooverider had been due to perform at a club gig and was quoted in local press reports as telling a court that he had forgotten he had a small amount of the drug in his pocket.

In 2006, the hip hop producer Dallas Austin was sentenced to four years after he was found with 1.26 grams of cocaine and other banned substances. The 34-year-old composer had flown to Dubai for a three-day birthday party thrown by the supermodel Naomi Campbell. He was later pardoned after intense lobbying from US senators with business ties in the region, and from the singer, Lionel Ritchie, a cult figure in the Arab world.

As this month welcomes in 2008's party season in Dubai, anyone tempted to light up a joint at a beach party or to smuggle in some cannabis should understand that they are taking a tremendous risk.

"Dubai is quite a free society in terms of the Middle East," said one Irish woman who lives there and did not want to be named. "But in UK terms, it is fairly conservative.

"When people think some drug-taking will be tolerated there, they are either being naïve, arrogant or stupid."