x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Complacency becomes criminals' best weapon in UAE

Almost everyone agrees that the UAE is one of the safest countries in the world. But that sense of security can leave us vulnerable to crime.

As a resident in an apartment block in Dubai Marina, Richard Taylor was a victim of crime when cleaners stole a small amount of his personal possessions. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
As a resident in an apartment block in Dubai Marina, Richard Taylor was a victim of crime when cleaners stole a small amount of his personal possessions. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Residents can develop a false sense of security about living in the UAE because of its historically low crime rates, but that laissez-faire attitude to household security can expose families and properties to risk ... as two Dubai residents found to their cost.

Read any guide to the UAE and it will most probably praise the nation for its low crime rates.

At expatarrivals.com, for example, it talks of the "confidence" Abu Dhabi residents feel about their personal safety adding : "Petty crime is rare and serious crime unheard of."

Similarly, propertyshowrooms.com describes Dubai as "practically crime free" with incidence of serious crime below 1 per 100,000 victims - a much lower figure than the international average of 4 to 6 per 100,000.

There is certainly truth to these sweeping generalisations.

According to Abu Dhabi Police, the number of crime reports received by the capital's police stations dropped by 28 per cent in 2010 - with 4,618 crimes reported compared to 6,490 in 2009.

Dubai too can boast improved crime figures, reporting an almost 90 per cent drop in serious crime last year compared to 2010 and an almost 30 per cent drop in house thefts.

But do the low crime rates leave us vulnerable to opportunist criminals who can literally cash in on our own stupidity?

After all, how many of us have left a gate, door or window unlocked in our home without a second thought about the consequences?

As police and residential developers urge residents to step up home security during the summer months - a time where crime typically rises because so many homes are left empty - it is precisely this laissez-faire attitude towards security that places communities at risk. Because while crime rates are low, that doesn't mean crime doesn't happen at all.

As one security consultant, a former security manager for a leading UAE property developer, points out: "The UAE community assumes it's safe here. People get out of their car and leave their car running. Where else in the world would you do that?"

Dilip Daswani, a British business owner, who has lived in Dubai for eight years, knows only too well where complacency towards crime can lead.

He admits he made it easy for a gang of robbers to enter his luxury villa in Dubai's Emirates Hills on May 1 this year by leaving both an outside gate and a sliding door to the house unlocked.

He was asleep when the housemaid phoned from a downstairs bathroom to say a man was in their house. But Mr Daswani says it never crossed his mind a crime was being committed; instead, he assumed his maid had argued with a male friend and needed help.

However, the real story was much more frightening.

Because as he, his wife and two teenage sons, aged 18 and 13, slept upstairs, a man entered the house through an unlocked sliding door and woke the housemaid by clamping his hand over her mouth and holding a knife to her throat.

Tapping on the window revealed two more men waiting outside so when the initial intruder ordered the maid to stay quiet and take him upstairs, she refused, instead persuading him to allow her to go to the bathroom. It was there that she alerted her employer by phone, a move that frightened the gang away.

"I'd never experienced anything like this in eight years of living in Dubai," says Mr Daswani, 48, who runs a real estate company, and has since spent Dh15,000 installing a security system in his home.

"The man wanted cash and it's not a one-off. I've heard of six more stories in the Springs/Meadows area since. It's the same crime; two guys stand outside while one goes in with a knife. We were lucky that nothing was taken but others had money and jewellery taken.

"We've all left doors open and we're not bothered because we think it's safe, but it's not safe any more."

Such a statement may sound like scaremongering, but in the last year there has been a spate of petty crime across the Emirates, particularly in gated communities supposedly deemed safer because of the guards positioned at entrances.

In September last year, thieves broke into 21 vehicles in a single morning in Abu Dhabi's Khalifa City, taking cash and valuables.

Nearby, Al Reef villas has also experienced a wave of break-ins since the beginning of the year.

Residents complained that thieves easily accessed the community from its rear where it backs on to desert next to Abu Dhabi International Airport before breaking into homes through poorly secured sliding patio doors.

In Dubai, a group of women from Emaar's Meadows and Springs communities visited the developer's security office in May demanding increased vigilance after dozens of break-ins and thefts of bikes, garden equipment and children's toys and strollers outside homes.

"There was one lorry that just drove in, emptied an entire house and then drove out of the Springs without anyone stopping them," says Neha Bali, a concerned Meadows resident who was among the group of women.

"They knew the resident was away, took everything and nobody stopped them. Anyone can drive up to the security gate and say I'm going to villa two, street four and they are allowed in."

Mrs Bali, who set up a community Facebook group last year, says the group quickly transformed from a community forum to a place for the 180 members to alert each other about crime.

"When we went to the security office, they told us they get a lot of reports of burglaries and there was a young boy who was a resident who broke 16 lamps so we have vandalism within the community as well.

"I am going away in the summer and while I have a full-time domestic helper, if she leaves a window open by mistake then I am completely open to that possibility - it's very worrying."

Nearby in Jumeirah Islands, residents have also blamed sloppy security at entrance gates for a near abduction of a teenage girl and an influx of peddlers selling pirated DVDs, water coolers and domestic appliances.

So who are the criminals? Paul Mercer, director of Whispering Bell, a security risk management company, says that while some crime is purely opportunistic carried out by those living or working in the community, organised crime is also a factor.

In May, police arrested two Georgian men who flew to the UAE to carry out a string of house robberies over a three-week period. By the time they were caught, the men, both in their 30s, had netted jewellery and cash worth more than Dh1million from 11 homes in Dubai and Sharjah.

However, Mr Mercer, who regularly conducts risk assessment studies for organisations wanting to do business in the UAE, says the recent crime reports are just a reflection of a growing economy and the global economic crisis.

"Crime has increased with increased population growth and individual wealth. Crime rates are still low but economic drivers in desperate situations are bound to drive an increase in opportunist criminality which may grow into organised criminality through necessity.

"From 2008 to 2010, anecdotal evidence from the foreign business community pointed to an increase in criminal incidents as the economic downturn reached its highest levels. Back then, a notable increase in petty and organised theft from construction sites was recorded in Dubai and Sharjah. Authorities were successful in reversing this trend in 2011 and this is expected to continue in the remainder of 2012."

Police in Abu Dhabi and Dubai say increased policing, both uniformed and undercover, and crime-targeted awareness campaigns are at the root of the reduction in crime, something Mr Mercer agrees with. But while lower crime rates are reassuring for residents, the number of crimes reported to the police may be very different to the number of crimes actually committed.

According to Axa insurance, less than 10 per cent of residents have a home contents insurance policy in place, making the need for a police report to make a claim on a stolen bike or plant pot redundant.

Others are unwilling to give up the time to report a minor crime, fearing they will get caught up in hours of paperwork or concerned what the consequences will be for the offender.

This was the case for Richard Taylor, 28, a chartered financial planner, who moved to Dubai from the UK last August and became a victim of crime in December. As a resident in an apartment block in the marina, Mr Taylor asked the building's managers to send cleaners into his apartment for a couple of hours, paying them Dh35 an hour.

But when he returned home he found that a pair of cuff links, a packet of cigarettes, two coins, a necklace Mr Taylor had given his wife for their wedding and a pair of sunglasses were missing.

He alerted the building's security team and later the police. But when the perpetrator confessed, Mr Taylor refused to press charges.

"I just wanted my stuff back whereas the police wanted me to charge him, which would have led to six months in jail. I didn't want that on my conscience particularly when I'd been naive and just left everything out. I just thought people didn't steal here."

However, the former security manager for a leading developer adds: "The number of crimes that occur is nowhere near the number of crimes that are actually registered. Crime is only a crime when it's reported; if it's not reported it's not a crime."

Going forward, Mr Mercer says if the UAE wants to retain its reputation as a safe place to live, it will need to step up its crime initiatives.

"There is nothing to suggest that the opportunities for criminally minded individuals to commit crimes will not continue to increase as the infrastructure, population and wealth of the UAE grows. The UAE will need to be prepared to manage this change in criminal behaviour if it is to continue to be seen as one of the safest places in the world to live and work."

For some residents, like Mr Daswani, the realisation that crime does exist in the UAE only came when they became a victim themselves.

"I'd expect this kind of thing to happen in north London where I lived for 27 years but not here," he says. "There I'd expect to be on my guard but I never thought about it in Dubai. It shook us up a lot."