As the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, prepared for his state visit to the UK last week, three British tourists were sentenced to four years for possessing, consuming and intending to distribute illegal drugs in Dubai. Suneet Jeerh, 25, Karl Williams, 26, and Grant Cameron, 25, claim they were tortured by police after being taken into custody last summer.
This is not the first time such allegations have been made against Dubai Police. In 2011, British tourist Lee Bradley Brown, 39, from East London, died whilst in custody in Dubai. His family believe he was beaten to death and have campaigned tirelessly for further investigations. Once again, Dubai finds itself under scrutiny by the British press, and once again, we are all quick to pass the same judgements. We watched in awe as a sparkling city rose up from the desert, but we were the first to criticise and try to bring it to its knees.
I moved to the Emirate in 2008 and, working as a news reporter for an English language newspaper, saw Dubai in all its guises, for all its achievements and downfalls. I am the first to admit it is far from perfect, a bizarre city absent of identity and culture. But I know dozens of expats who are loyal and defensive, proud and patriotic just like the locals, and many will stay for as long as they can. In return, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is a leader who has worked hard to earn respect. Affectionately nicknamed “Sheikh Mo”, countless tales can be heard about his kind actions and charitable work. He is known to be approachable, often spotted driving alone, without visible security.
As I watched the news last week from my home in the UK, I was reminded of other news stories involving foreigners in the Emirate, arrested for inappropriate behaviour, and imprisoned for possession of minute quantities of drugs. Just like them, Jeerh, Williams and Cameron must have known about Dubai’s zero tolerance approach to drugs. They, like the rest of us, must have heard the stories. If they were in possession of “spice”, a synthetic form of cannabis, it is difficult to sympathise. If they wanted a drug and drink-fuelled holiday, Dubai was the wrong choice.
But the trio’s case became far more complicated as soon as we heard the word “torture”. Any form of abuse towards prisoners or violation of human rights must be condemned, but this cannot excuse the law they broke. We all hope as British citizens we will be aided by our government, but we cannot assume we hold a Get Out Of Jail Free card if we commit a crime in a foreign land. The British authorities must push for an independent investigation into the alleged torture of the men, regardless of whether they are guilty of drug possession or not.
For an Islamic country, governed by Sharia law, the UAE is extremely lenient, and Dubai is the most liberal of the seven Emirates. Short skirts, bikinis, drinking alcohol, and eating pork are not forbidden, but such activities are reserved for an appropriate time and place. Living within the parameters of the law is rarely restrictive. You may have to cover your shoulders in the mall, avoid stumbling down the road after one too many, try not to go topless on the beach, and resist public displays of affection, but most of these rules simply require respectable behaviour and a little common sense. Luckily, most expats are well equipped with both.
But there are exceptions in every society. Just as we are offended and confused by a woman wearing a niqab in Europe, an Emirati may feel the same about revealing clothing and plunging necklines. A young woman wearing a wet bikini and a white cotton dress would attract disapproving looks on a busy British high street, so why does she think it acceptable in the Mall of the Emirates where signs clearly display the necessary dress code? There appears to be a sense of entitlement among a very small number of expats, who do not feel the need to respect customs they may see as archaic and irrelevant, and who ruin the experience for the law-abiding, respectful majority.
The tolerance of the British, and their acceptance of immigrants to this country, is commendable. But the attitude of Emiratis is admirable on a different scale. They have found themselves in the minority, surrounded by brazen westerners who want a taste of their tax-free life with little regard for their traditions and laws. Yet they remain tolerant. Two parallel worlds exist simultaneously within the city, each unaffected and unnoticed by the other. To imagine such a system here in the UK is impossible. We are quick to criticise immigrants who do not learn English or assimilate into our society, so why do we not understand the importance to reciprocate?
Dubai is still too young for us to predict its fate, and will go through many ups and downs as it grows. But it will struggle to carve a real identity, or even build on the culture it once began with, if members of its own society cannot respect its basic foundation and principles.