Love Island star Laura Anderson in Dubai last year
When Radha Stirling first heard that a colleague called Cat Le-Huy had been arrested by immigration officials in Dubai, she assumed it was all a big mistake.
Her chum, a London-based producer with whom she worked at the TV production company Endemol, had been initially detained because an unidentified bottle of pills was found in his suitcase.
After they turned out to be melatonin, a perfectly legal jetlag medication, customs staff announced with a flourish that they had also discovered cannabis among some dust in the depths of the holidaymaker’s bag.
The quantity of this illegal narcotic was, they claimed, exactly 0.03 grams. That’s an amount smaller than a single grain of salt and virtually invisible to the human eye.
Cat, who hails from Belsize Park, North London, was promptly slapped in handcuffs and transported to the Al Wathba prison, 40 miles north of the airport.
Radha, who is 42, knew that her chum did not take recreational drugs so, initially, thought he would be promptly released. But she was wrong. Instead, she was told to her horror that he faced a four-year prison sentence for ‘drug possession’.
It was 2008 and, in the weeks that followed, she helped organise a noisy campaign on Cat’s behalf, turning him into an international cause célèbre.
Finally, after the best part of a month in custody, he was released without charge and allowed to return home. Case closed. For Cat Le-Huy, at least. But for Radha, it was just the beginning.
As the dust settled, she was contacted by several other Westerners who claimed to be victims of grave miscarriages of justice in the exotic tourist hotspot.
‘People were basically saying, ‘I saw how you helped him, can you help me, too?’ she says.
‘I suddenly realised that, behind the facade of this glamorous country, which touts its credentials as a popular destination with beaches and luxury hotels, there were huge problems with the rule of law and human rights, affecting vast numbers of innocent people.’ She duly founded Detained In Dubai, a pressure group that lobbies on behalf of victims of the Emirate state’s hardline laws.
When Radha Stirling first heard that a colleague called Cat Le-Huy (pictured right) had been arrested by immigration officials in Dubai, she assumed it was all a big mistake. Pictured left: Princess Latifa Al Maktoum
So far, her organisation has helped an incredible 15,000 people — an average of roughly three per day — navigate a draconian legal system that, despite Dubai’s reputation as a glittering millionaires’ playground with golden sands, turquoise seas and towering modern skyscrapers is, in fact, built on a hardline interpretation of medieval Sharia law.
‘We have dealt with cases in which rape victims were prosecuted for unlawful sex, foreigners jailed over social media posts, people convicted on the basis of torture and forced confessions, and victims of gross police and prosecutorial misconduct of a variety that staggers the imagination,’ she says. ‘All involve laws that people don’t imagine could possibly exist in the modern era.’
Among the victims Radha has personally helped is Princess Latifa al-Maktoum, the 35-year-old daughter of Dubai’s autocratic ruler Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, who attempted to flee the country in a yacht in 2018.
The princess is under armed guard, recently smuggling out remarkable videos telling how she had been seized by commandos while in international waters, before being transported back to Dubai, where she has been held hostage ever since.
‘I spoke to Princess Latifa when she was on the boat and shots were going off,’ says Radha. ‘It was extremely harrowing. When even a member of the royal family is denied basic human rights, you can imagine how the country treats normal people who aren’t even its citizens.’
These and other high-profile cases shine a light on the dark underbelly of a destination whose status as a celebrity hotspot is deeply at odds with its legal system, under which everything from drinking alcohol to holding hands in public and sharing a bedroom with someone who is not your spouse is officially unlawful, and consensual gay sex can earn you a prison sentence of ten years.
Take, for example, online celebrity ‘influencers’, many of whom have spent lockdown posting pictures of themselves visiting Dubai’s gaudy attractions, where they are often staying for free as part of a commercial deal negotiated with publicists who have turned the Middle Eastern resort into a winter sun destination to rival the Caribbean.
Little do they know that, while they tout the virtues of this supposedly ‘modern’ mega city, they, and almost any other visitor, are at constant risk of prosecution under draconian cyber-crime laws.
Should they or any other foreigner fall foul of a policeman, minor royal, business leader or powerful local, the country’s authorities can (and often do) trawl through historic social media posts in search of something that offends their sensibilities.
‘These rules can, in theory, criminalise almost every Western visitor,’ says Radha. ‘If you’re responsible for a Facebook post from five years ago they don’t like, and if they want to go for you, then you are toast.’
Take, for example, 55-year-old Briton Laleh Shahravesh, who was arrested in Dubai in 2019 following a complaint from a local that she had used the social network to brand her ex-husband’s new partner ‘horse-face’. She was arrested on arrival in the country and only allowed back to the UK several weeks later, after agreeing to pay a £625 fine for making the supposedly ‘defamatory’ claim.
Pictured: Sheikh al-Maktoum
Or take Scott Richards, a 42-year-old father of two, who was detained in 2016 after the police took exception to a Facebook post in which he had shared a link to a crowd-funding campaign to supply blankets for Afghan refugees.
He spent three weeks behind bars because of a bizarre law that bans soliciting donations for non-profits that have not been approved by the government’s totalitarian-sounding ‘Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities’ department.
At present, Detained In Dubai is also representing a 31-year-old HR manager from Gloucestershire arrested at the airport in January as she tried to return home after three years living in the country.
Her alleged ‘crime’ is having told her ex-flatmate, a Ukrainian, to ‘f*** off’ in a WhatsApp message, during a row over the use of the dining table at their home during lockdown. This is also, apparently, defamatory.
This woman, who has not been named, has learned — along with so many of the hundreds of Britons who are arrested in the United Arab Emirates each year — that modern living fits uncomfortably in a country where rules governing social interaction (particularly among women) are centuries behind those in the West.
Partly, this is an accident of history. A hundred years ago, Dubai was a sleepy fishing town where little had changed since the Middle Ages. But, in 1966, oil was discovered, creating vast wealth for its ruling family, the Maktoums, and residents, who today make up around 20 per cent of its population. During the 1990s, with an eye on the day when oil would run out, Sheikh Maktoum decided to reinvent his tiny fiefdom as a financial centre, trade hub and tourist hotspot, investing huge resources in throwing up skyscrapers and mega resorts that, in the course of a generation, have turned it into the Middle East’s version of Las Vegas.
At one point, in the early 2000s, a third of the world’s cranes were estimated to be in use in Dubai’s various building sites.
For the ruling class, it would prove an inspired move. However, for the hundreds of thousands of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan migrants who worked at the sharp end of its construction industry for wages of a few dollars per day (no minimum wage), it was anything but.
According to Human Rights Watch, many of the three million low-paid workers employed under the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system in the UAE are now ‘subjected to abuses that amount to forced labour’ in temperatures that can reach 45c (113f).
The organisation says that ‘more often than not’, their passports are detained as soon as they start work and remain with the employer for almost the entirety of their contract.
Even relatively well-heeled white-collar workers from Britain and other Western countries can end up finding that Dubai’s forward-thinking reputation is a veneer.
Authoritarian local laws meant that anything from allowing a cheque to bounce to failing (even accidentally) to pay a credit card bill on time can lead to a punitive spell in jail. Public displays of affection with a girlfriend, or even spouse, can lead to arrest.
Businessmen whose companies fail, leaving behind debts, often have their passports confiscated, leaving them in a Kafka-esque position — unable to leave the country until creditors are satisfied, but unable to work because their visa has been revoked.
Exactly this state of affairs faces Robin Berlyn, a 50-year-old former Grenadier Guardsman, who fell foul of the authorities in 2013 after a business collapsed and he found himself trapped in Dubai unable to pay various disputed debts.
In October last year, he managed to flee by swimming two miles across the Persian Gulf to neighbouring Oman, using a rucksack as a flotation aid, only to be arrested by local police and driven back to the UAE (rather than being deported to the UK, as he had hoped). His case remains ongoing.
Tourists can also be caught in the trap. In November, two Canterbury University students on a 21st birthday celebration were stranded in Dubai for almost three months after a dispute with a car-hire company. They were told to expect 18 months in prison if they failed to pay £16,000 over alleged damage to a Range Rover but, after an international outcry, they got a £250 fine, instead.
In 2017, plasterer Billy Barclay spent a month in limbo after being arrested after one of the £20 notes he handed into a bureau de change turned out to be forged.
As with many a Middle Eastern autocracy, it is women’s rights that are most commonly abused.
A 2005 law states that ‘a husband’s rights over his wife’ include the wife’s ‘courteous obedience to him’, and places conditions on a married woman’s right to work or leave the house.
These rules are routinely used by estranged husbands to exert control over their spouses, even when both parties are Western expats.
Radha says: ‘We had one client, a German woman in the process of separating from her husband, who had decided to get a job. Her husband rang up the company and said, ‘I didn’t give her permission’ and they had to fire her.’
In another case, Scottish expat Morag McNeil Koussa was duped by her ex-husband Rafic into signing a document in Arabic that made her liable for the arrears of his engineering business. When he fled the country in 2014, her passport was seized, she was left homeless and could not work as her visa had expired. She did not get home until last year.
In Dubai, extra-marital sex is punishable by one year or more in prison. On the basis of this law, Amnesty says, a Swedish-run hospital in Ajman Emirate was forced to report pregnant, unmarried women to the police.
Three years ago, a 29-year-old South African resident of Dubai called Emlyn Culverwell took his fiancée, Iryna Nohal, a Ukrainian, to a doctor, complaining of stomach pain.
He promptly diagnosed that she was pregnant. But rather than offering treatment, the doctor called the police. The couple were arrested and jailed when they could not produce a marriage licence.
Eventually, they were released, apparently at the behest of Sheikh Maktoum. For years, he has often intervened when ugly legal cases threaten his country’s international reputation. But since the PR disaster that today threatens his glittering emirate involves his own treatment of Princess Latifa, it may not be so easy to fix.