The Laws in Dubai

I meant to comment on this earlier:

A British woman has been charged with having extra-marital sex in Dubai after reporting she was raped, according to a UK-based legal advice group.

The Detained in Dubai group said the woman was arrested after she claimed she was raped by two British men.

The woman, who is in her 20s, was reportedly attacked by two men from Birmingham while she was on holiday.

And according to the Daily Mail:

Last year, Ms Waterman Smith waived her anonymity to reveal how she was raped when her attackers tampered with her drink at the Rock Bottom Bar in the Regent Palace Hotel.

Here’s a thing a lot of people don’t know about Dubai: the laws there can not only be very strict, but they are also flouted so brazenly people forget they exist.  For instance, it is illegal to drink in Dubai unless one of the following is the case:

1) You drinking in the bar of a hotel in which you are resident, i.e. a paying guest.

2) You are a resident of Dubai or one of the other Emirates and you hold a liquor-license.

In other words, if you are drinking in a bar at a hotel in which you are not resident, you are breaking the law.  The problem is, everyone does this, and the whole place is set up to allow this.  At least one bar – the Irish Village under the tennis stadium – is not attached to any hotel, yet is packed with tourists.  Provided there are no problems, the authorities turn a blind eye.

Also, it is illegal for a man and woman to share a hotel or residence in Dubai unless they are married.  Enforcing this law would destroy the tourist industry overnight, but that is the law nonetheless and if you live in one of the smaller hotels you will sometimes be asked by the hotel staff to prove you are married if you’re trying to bring a girl home.  Which can be a bit difficult if you don’t know her name, as I have seen once with an Arab trying to sneak a prostitute into his quarters.  So if a British woman turns up with her boyfriend in Dubai for a weekend stopover on the way to Thailand and they check into a hotel together, technically they are in breach of the law.  Again, none of this is a problem – until something goes wrong.  Then, usually for the first time, somebody finds out what the law actually says.

Islamic laws apply in Dubai, and they say that a woman is not allowed to be alone in a hotel room with a man who is not her husband.  This is based on the belief that a woman who is alone in a hotel room with a man who is not her husband might have sex with him, and that is prohibited in Islamic law.  Now this might be a bit backward, but that’s how they think.  And the law is also there because they believe a woman alone in a hotel room with a strange man or men might be subject to an attack, and to prevent this they simply make it illegal for her to be in that position in the first place.  It might be illiberal, unfair, misogynistic, etc. but it is not inherently stupid, and it avoids them having to get into the “he said/she said” arguments which plague all such cases everywhere else.

I know Rock Bottom Bar, it is an absolute shithole with a sticky carpet – or at least it was when I was there in 2003-6.  It is chock-full of wasted tourists, and it is a meat-market for those looking for a pick-up.  The bar is well named, which is more than can be said for the hotel itself: there is little that is regal or palatial about the Regent Palace.  I never knew of anyone who stayed there, and would guess the bar provides the bulk of its revenue.  Those people staggering back to a hotel in the company of somebody they just met are unlikely to be met with a sympathetic hearing from the authorities if something goes wrong.

Of course, if she was raped then an appalling crime has occurred.  But the authorities are in a difficult position here: the law says she should not have been with them in the first place, precisely to avoid unpleasantness like this.  Us westerners might not like this law, but that is how the Emiratis govern themselves, and to be fair they give tourists and expats a free pass on this – until something goes wrong and their hand is forced.  When the woman concerned made the complaint she didn’t know the law, and she has now compelled them to enforce it.  If they turn a blind eye then locals – who are more closely policed on such matters than tourists, especially women – will be entitled to ask why the law is not being applied in such an obvious case, and will likely think her being white and Western is the reason (pity the Bangladeshi maids who have been imprisoned and flogged for minor offences).

This will be the case regardless of whether the men are charged with rape or not: the reports are unclear as to whether the two men will be charged, are on bail, or are free to leave but the two offences are separate as I understand it.  Now it may turn out that the woman gets charged and jailed and the men go free without anyone taking her claims seriously, which would be pretty awful.  But it might also be the case that the police take her seriously but don’t have any evidence except for her say-so that she was raped, and aren’t prepared to put them on trial just to make the country look more modern (as if rape trials in Western countries are not fraught with problems).

The accusations of drink tampering only serve to make things worse: the Dubai police will know Rock Bottom well, and the type of place that it is.  Perhaps there have been other cases of drinks being spiked in there, and if so the police would know about it: more complaints would have been forthcoming, and undercover policemen – who frequent the bars – would see it.  Also, the bar managers and security would be keeping a sharp eye-out: the last thing they want is a police investigation.  That’s leaving aside the issue of where a date-rape drug would be bought from.  Sex isn’t hard to come by in Dubai, the place being rammed full of prostitutes.  Drugs might be easily obtained (I have no idea), but I think the police would take some convincing that she had her drink spiked and wasn’t just hammered.  If the two men were residents, the police might consider it a possibility.  If they were tourists, no chance.  I hope to hell she didn’t make up the bit about her drink being tampered to cover for her being totally wasted on tequila, leading the police to doubt her entire story.

I am not writing this in defence of Dubai or the prevailing Islamic laws, I don’t like either the place or the way it is run, which is why I left.  However, I don’t think berating the Dubai police is exactly fair either: rape accusations are notoriously difficult to deal with anywhere, and they have tried to avoid their occurrence by applying laws which I don’t agree with, but then I’m not in charge.  It might simply be the case there is no evidence that a rape occurred, which of course is not proof that it did not, only that charges cannot be pressed with the hope of a conviction.  One could argue that the Dubai authorities should do more to inform visitors of what the laws are, but had they done so would the woman in question have stayed home with a book and given Rock Bottom a wide berth?  I doubt it.  There are serious issues with the way women are treated in Dubai and the wider Middle East, particularly as regard equality under the law and sexual assault/rape.  I just don’t think this is the best case to put forward as an example of why things ought to change.

If she did go to Rock Bottom, have her drink spiked, and was then raped she has my every sympathy.  If that was indeed the case, I think the Dubai authorities will figure this out and find a way to drop the charges in a face-saving manner, which they may do anyway even if they don’t believe her.  What the British press needs to do is resist the temptation to stand on their soapbox and piss off the Emiratis so that they throw the book at her just to make a point.

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7 thoughts on “The Laws in Dubai

  1. I quite often stop off in Dubai and have exhibited at expos up there as well. The last time I went through I was entertaining a couple of potential clients and we stayed at The Address. It was a great hotel, great location, top views, excellent bar but the foyer and bar was full of hookers to the extent that you couldn’t discern who was on the game and who was not.

    Yes you need to be aware of the risks of local laws in the Gulf and we are continually harping on to our expat staff up there about the risks or booze and women and the dangerous cocktail that they are. Sovereign nations are entitled to administer their laws and we should just accept that. What I admire in the Gulf is when you see younger courting couples sitting together and obliviously romantically engaged yet no booze to be seen, something to look up to that. Admittedly I do have a soft spot for the natural beauty of Persian women.

    I am heading up to a Board meeting in Doha this week and have now been invited to another meeting in Abu Dhabi which will necessitate an overnight stay in Dubai. I will give The Address a miss since its fireproof cladding caught fire and might just stay at a hotel near the airport for convenience . The construction market in Dubai is white hot and will remain that way for the foreseeable, we have set up an “offshore” entity in Jebel Ali but other than strictly business Dubai is not my kind of town although I can see how it is becoming the new Benidorm for the chavesque lager louts.

  2. You’d think it’s much easier to get the emirs to abandon Sharia law than to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy, but no one seems to be trying the former.

  3. Provided that you (a) learn something about the country beforehand, and (b) are circumspect when there, there’s a lot to see and enjoy in the Gulf. That said, the expat haunts are best avoided (unless you really want to listen to expats whingeing?). I accompanied my husband on his two 4-year contracts in Saudi Arabia, and 4 years in Bahrain. Although I was just the ‘excess baggage’, I always managed to find work. We spent our vacations exploring the host country and also made trips to the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. I enjoyed it all immensely. Been there, done that — and I’ve got the abaya to prove it!

  4. Provided that you (a) learn something about the country beforehand, and (b) are circumspect when there, there’s a lot to see and enjoy in the Gulf.

    Kind of. Families like it. 25 year old bachelors? Not so much.

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