Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Wednesday, 30 July 2008 00:03 UK

Dubai expats face legal limbo

By Ben Thompson
Business reporter, BBC World, Dubai

Dubai can be both glamorous and confusing for expats

Dubai is the expat dream. Year-round sunshine, sandy beaches and a tax-free lifestyle to boot.

Every year, thousands of people come here to seek adventure, to start a new life or to find a new job.

For some of them, the dream destination quickly turns into a nightmare as they inadvertently find themselves on the wrong side of the law, which has been laid down by the ruling Maktoum family of Dubai and is based on Sharia.

Drug offences

In the rush to start a new life in the sun, many - especially expats from Western countries - overlook the local laws that could land them a heavy fine, or worse; a deportation order.

In some cases, breaking those laws can even lead to lengthy prison sentences.

This fact has become widespread knowledge around the world after British expat Michelle Palmer was charged with indecent behaviour in a public place, as well as alcohol related charges, following an alleged affair with fellow Brit, Vince Acors. She has yet to be sentenced.

Dubai’s hardline stance on drugs has also generated its fair share of international headlines in recent years, including high profile cases of visitors jailed for carrying prescription medicines.

Illegal drugs that would carry little more than a warning in the West can lead to prison sentences of up to six years. In the last 12 months, 64 British nationals have been arrested in the UAE for drugs offences.

Tolerated behaviour

And yet, many Western expats here choose to compare Dubai with its neighbours, where laws are often perceived as stricter.

Map of Dubai
Saying you don't know about the law is not an excuse
Obaid Busit, lawyer

Dubai knows that without the influx of expats, it would not have transformed itself from a sleepy fishing village just 30 years ago, into the global financial and tourist powerhouse it is today.

Expats now make up more than 80% of Dubai's population, so in the past the authorities have often deliberately tolerated much of their behaviour - in some cases even when such behaviour is in breach of Dubai's laws.

It is common for expats to be let off with a warning for some offences. For instance, it is not uncommon for a policeman to take a drunk driver home, instead of locking him up.

Not clear

But for expats and visitors from Western countries who are not used to visiting Islamic countries, it is still worth remembering that much of what is acceptable at home could well be a punishable offence in Dubai, and that some of those offences carry heavy penalities.

Being drunk in public, swearing or making rude gestures – especially whilst driving - and public shows of affection - such as kissing, are all offences. It is illegal to live with someone of the opposite sex for those not married, and homosexuality is a crime here.

Obviously, much of this still goes on. And in many ways the authorities choose to ignore such behaviour a lot of the time. However, clamping down on what it deems the most offensive breaches of the law only serves to create a sort of legal limbo where nobody is clear about exactly what is and what is not acceptable.

Companies that recruit expats from overseas are calling for more information from the authorities.

"There's just not enough advice for new expats coming here," says recruitment manager Simon Rogers-Bedelle, "so people rely on blogs, online forums, word of mouth and the Dubai urban myths that you get told by the taxi drivers when you arrive."

Indeed, in cases where illegal behaviour does end up in court it is not a useful defence to plead ignorance, observes local lawyer Obaid Busit.

"Saying you don't know about the law is not an excuse," he says. "The law will not accept it. If you've been acting inappropriately in a common place or a public place, whether you're in Hyde Park or on Jumeirah Beach, I think you will face the same consequences."

Mutual understanding

Indeed, sometimes what is illegal in Dubai is also illegal in many Western countries, though the enforcement and penalties can be much more severe here.

So to prevent new recruits falling foul of the law, more and more firms here are sending their staff on "cultural awareness courses" - or lectures given by Emiratis – explaining local customs and cultures.

They are increasingly popular as firms look to avoid the negative publicity of having their staff caught up in lengthy and, at best, potentially embarassing court-case.

But according to one of the trainers, Dr Alromaithy, the courses are not about providing a list of what is right and wrong.

Rather, they are about understanding more about the country and culture they are working in.

"Business people go along [wanting] easy answers and they just come and they say 'tell me, the dos and don'ts'," says Dr Alromaithy.

"But all these dos and don'ts are based on looking at the external perceptions of culture.

"You can't tell the expat 'you can't do this, you can't do that'," he reasons.

"It's about understanding each other."



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