The British government has issued a warning to visitors to the UAE to be aware of the local laws and customs before they visit. The advice, part of the country's long-running Know Before You Go campaign, comes after a spate of high-profile cases of Britons falling foul of the UAE's conservative laws on behaviour, drugs and alcohol.
Around a million British tourists visit the Emirates each year, with up to a dozen British nationals arrested each month, often for failing to respect the country's customs, said a spokeswoman for the British embassy in Abu Dhabi. Most are charged with alcohol-related offences, failure to repay debts or making obscene hand gestures. However, the embassy does not break down the figures according to whether the people arrested were expatriates or tourists.
The Foreign Office documents point out that topless sunbathing is strictly forbidden in Abu Dhabi and can be punished by imprisonment. They also state that wearing skirts with a hem above the knee is considered "unacceptable behaviour" and could lead to fines and warnings. Sue Elliott, from the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi, said the campaign aimed to encourage people to educate themselves ahead of foreign trips. "People are not used to how seriously these things are taken here," she said.
"What is a norm in lots of countries is just not acceptable here." The drive aims to prevent repeats of cases such as that of Britons Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, who were convicted last year of having sex on a beach in Dubai. Acors, 34, who was visiting the UAE on business, was arrested with Palmer, 36, near the Burj al Arab hotel in the early hours of July 5. They were sentenced to three months in jail but this was suspended on appeal and both were later deported. Hassan Matter, the Dubai lawyer who represented Acors and Palmer after their arrest, said visitors should be better educated about local laws and customs when travelling abroad, particularly to Muslim countries.
"Sometimes tourists get into trouble because they forget they are in a different country and act as if they were at home," he said. "They must respect the local laws and customs otherwise they will be in danger of getting into trouble." He said that he did not believe British tourists behaved worse than other foreign visitors. "There are many problems here with foreign people who are drinking alcohol. Sometimes they shout and cause trouble. Other times they drive cars while under the influence of alcohol.
"People who are caught driving while under the control of alcohol can be fined Dh20,000 [US$5,400] and spend a month in jail - sometimes more. "Hand gestures are the next big problem. It is a very bad offence here. It is considered very serious and people can be given six months in jail and then deported. "It is not a problem if people drink in moderation and only in places where they are allowed but if people drink too much alcohol and start shouting and making sexual [gestures] in the streets, they will be punished."
It is not just tourists who get into trouble over behaviour that would not be illegal in many Western countries. Two British expatriates, Marnie Pearce and Sally Antia, were recently prosecuted for adultery after their husbands reported them to police.Pearce spent three months in jail and lost custody of her two children. Antia was sentenced to two months and was released earlier this week.The UAE's strict anti-drugs policy has also caused difficulties, most notoriously for the BBC Radio 1 DJ, Raymond Bingham, better known by his stage name, Grooverider.
He served 10 months of a four-year sentence after being caught at Dubai International Airport with 2.16g of cannabis, worth around £10 (Dh60), in his pocket. Even trace quantities of narcotics in the bloodstream can lead to prosecution. This applies even to prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs that are controlled in the UAE. Alexandra Tribe, a solicitor with Al Midfa and Associates in Dubai, said cases such as DJ Grooverider's appeared to have made tourists more aware of the UAE's hard-line approach. "I think the message about drugs in the UAE is getting through as a result of some of these high-profile cases," she said.
"It is the visitors' responsibility to find out what is and what is not allowed when travelling abroad." Maire McCraken, 28, a legal secretary from Yorkshire staying in Jumeirah Beach Residence for a week, said she had not read any advice about the UAE: "I knew what this country was like from news stories and knew that it was a Muslim country. I am not that wild and know I am not in Spain where the locals party hard." She added that airlines should provide extra information about local laws and customs.
Martin Fahey, 32, from Leeds, was staying in the Royal Meridien for three days before travelling to Bangkok. "I always wanted to see Dubai," he said. "In any Muslim country, women should be dressed accordingly, but in the hotel, everybody is in swimsuits. "I was a little surprised to see it but mainly everybody here is European. It's when you leave the hotel and go to one of the malls. "There is a sign warning about proper dress on the doors of Mall of the Emirates. I still see women not only from Europe wearing short skirts and I know that is not right especially when I also see women in local dress."
Dubai is now famous for its zero-tolerance reputation and anybody who does act out of order is even more foolish, he added. "I think anybody who comes here and gets into trouble deserves it. There may be some things we can get away with at home, like holding hands, but I suppose we should know things like that are illegal here." firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com