x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Problems of underage drinkers in UAE

The problem of alcohol abuse by teenagers is not one of smugglers illegally selling drink to minors in dark alleyways, or youths sneaking into hotels with false IDs. It is at home, police say.

DUBAI // Police and experts agree: underage drinking begins at home.

"They see their parents drink so the practice becomes normal," said a Dubai Police spokesman, who added that underage drinking was not uncommon in Dubai.

"The main source of alcohol for teenagers is what families have in their homes, and not what has been reported about teenagers getting it in illegal ways."

His comments were made after the death of Harry Harling, 15, a Year 11 pupil at Jumeirah College who fell from the 11th floor of a building in Motor City after a party on March 24.

Dubai Police said there had been "light drinking" at the event.

Alcohol is illegal for Muslims and non-Muslims under the age of 21 in six of the emirates, and for those aged under 18 in Abu Dhabi.

Sarah Dayal, a psychologist at an international school in Dubai, agreed with the police line.

"In a society where many people are well-off, families have alcohol available in their homes," Ms Dayal said. "The bar in the house is their easy access."

One girl, 16, who attends an American school in Dubai, said her parents allowed her to have alcohol on special occasions.

"Yes, everyone drinks," she said. "My parents don't mind when I have a glass of wine on New Year's Eve or birthdays."

But she said it was a different story at some of the parties she attends.

"I go to parties where we have alcohol and sometimes we end up drinking more. But we don't intend on getting wasted," she said.

After Harry's death there were reports that youngsters were frequently gathering in empty flats for wild parties.

But teenagers, property agents and landlords in Motor City said this was a wild exaggeration.

"This one must have been a one-off case because I do not see teenagers hanging around here on the weekend," said Hussain, an Emirati who lives with his wife in Motor City.

Hussain also owns a few flats in the area, which he keeps unlocked for possible tenants to look at.

"To date I have not seen any signs of a party and all our furniture is intact," he said.

The girl said parties were typically hosted at her friend's houses while their parents were away: "Obviously, the parents don't know."

George H, a member of the UAE chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, conducts regular school visits to educate children about the dangers of alcoholism.

"At this age there is a lot of ego and angst, and kids want to be accepted as part of the group," George said. "That association happens through alcohol.

"Many young people who drink are doing it in rebellion so they are conscious that they are breaking the law. It's the risk they enjoy."

He said the school visits are intended to help educators and parents to identify the signs of alcoholism among young people.

Schools actively drive home the message of the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse through programmes such as that run by George, for pupils and parents.

The British Embassy also conducts school visits to highlight the legal implications of underage drinking and substance abuse.

Becky Williams, a counsellor at Greenfield Community School, said educators there tried to impart lessons of self-confidence so teens learnt to say no and make positive choices.

"We have discussions on how to tackle situations where they feel pressured," Ms Williams said. "We need to develop them to make the right decisions for themselves."

Angela Hollington, the principal at Greenfield, said staff also held sessions with parents.

"We try to educate them on strategies to identify if their children have a problem and basically how they can build that trust with their child and communicate better," Ms Hollington said.

One British mother of two teenagers said she was not certain that her children did not drink. "We do live in the real world and teenagers will try things out," she said. "It happens all over the world."

She said she had to try to pass on the right message to her children without being too controlling.

"If we do not give them their independence the situation may become worse," she said. "My daughter has a curfew and I have to trust her with the boundaries I set."

aahmed@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Wafa Issa