x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UK wants to keep closer contact with its expatriates via database

British authorities draw lessons from 2004 tsunami, when UK emergency teams had difficulty determining which of the affected areas contained the most Britons.

ABU DHABI // The 100,000 British nationals who live in the UAE are being urged to register on a database aimed at providing a quicker and more effective response in the event of a crisis. The international campaign, run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), follows the lessons of the tsunami in 2004, when UK emergency teams had trouble determining which of the affected areas contained the most British citizens.

The UAE has become a popular spot for Britons to work and visit, said Julian Braithwaite, the FCO's director of consular affairs, who is touring the region and was in the Emirates yesterday. "People come here because it's a safe place, because it's open and cosmopolitan," he said. "We need to be as nimble as possible. We are playing catch-up and need to move resources to meet this growth." The system, called Locate, is for British citizens living or visiting overseas. They can register on the FCO's website, www.fco.gov.uk.

The database will enable the office to send travel alerts, trace missing citizens, contact family members and eventually build networks of expatriate communities. It is also designed to help the UK distribute its resources more effectively in times of crisis. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, UK emergency teams were mistakenly dispatched to Sri Lanka, when in fact they were most needed in Phuket, Thailand.

"If we'd had this system during the tsunami, we'd have known where the majority of the Brits were and it would have helped us enormously in trying to find who was missing," Mr Braithwaite said. Last week's cargo plane crash in Sharjah put UK response teams on alert, before they learnt that the aircraft involved was Sudanese and no British travellers were aboard. The UAE has the biggest British expatriate community in the region, the majority of them in Dubai. More than one million people also visit each year from the UK.

While most tourism focuses on Dubai, there are now 15,000 Britons living in Abu Dhabi and more tourists are coming to the capital for events such as this weekend's Formula One Grand Prix. Meanwhile, recent incidents such as the arrests of Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer, accused of having sex on a Dubai beach, and of the British mother Marnie Pearce, accused by her husband of adultery, have proved challenging for the foreign office.

"Sometimes people come here and because it looks like New York or Las Vegas, they don't realise they need to abide by different laws," Mr Braithwaite said. Just under 300 British residents and tourists were arrested in the Emirates over the past year, according to the annual British Behaviour Abroad report released in August. As a percentage of visitors, that was more than those from any other country.

The FCO has recently stepped up its Know Before You Go campaign to better inform people of customs and laws before they travel. "We don't want people to be caught up in different cultural issues and a legal system they're not familiar with. It's not good for either country," Mr Braithwaite said. After the UAE, Saudi Arabia has the second largest population of Britons in the region. Tony Kay, the consular regional director for the Gulf, Iran and Iraq, said the current focus was on the forthcoming Haj pilgrimage.

"Haj is a big challenge for us. You've got a large British delegation going to a place where there are millions of people," he said. Medical teams will be dispatched so they are on hand should emergencies arise. The FCO is also gearing up for the 7,000 Britons expected to travel to Doha for the football friendly against Brazil on November 14. About 1,000 of these will come from the UK while the remainder will be travelling from around the region.

Local authorities have worked with the Football Association and the FCO to ensure fans are fully briefed on local customs and laws before they travel. mswan@thenational.ae