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Detained in Dubai: UAE no longer safe for tourists

Millions of tourists visit Dubai on a yearly basis [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2019

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Beyond the sun, sea and skyscrapers, most tourists are oblivious to the UAE's continued detention of foreigners arrested for behaviour deemed criminal under the country's harsh laws.
Millions of dollars have been injected into redefining, whitewashing and streamlining the image of the United Arab Emirates, in a move that has successfully promoted the Gulf state as the ideal tourist hotspot for those seeking glitz and glamour.

In recent years, the UAE's PR arm has gone into overdrive to rejig its image in the race to welcome foreign tourists, investments and trade. Possibly its greatest tactic is the use of social media to reach out to budding young travellers, signing contracts with some of the world's most popular influencers, athletes and Hollywood A-listers to promote the country - in turn for big bucks and a guaranteed good time under the sun.

In 2011, the UAE was proud to host filming of Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol - the latest installment of one of Hollywood's biggest movie franchises. Soon after, musicians and rappers opted to film their latest hits to the backdrop of Dubai's skyline and the country's vast desert. In short, and together with easy access to alcohol and clubs, the UAE's tourism industry began to boom and its economy began to heavily pivot towards tourism.

But beyond the sun, sea and skyscrapers, most tourists are oblivious to the UAE's continued detention of foreigners who are arrested for behaviour deemed criminal under the country's harsh laws. From average Joes to members of its own royal family, the prisons of Dubai have hosted many.

Most recently, a British football fan attending the AFC Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi was arrested for allegedly wearing the Qatar national team's jersey in what has been described as a ludicrous and petty move tied to the regional dispute and blockade of Qatar. After Ali Issa Ahmad was harassed and assaulted, he filed a formal complaint to a police station in Sharjah - but the 26-year-old was himself detained instead.

"Ahmad's arrest is yet another damning indictment of the UAE authorities' all-out assault on freedom of expression," the International Campaign for Freedom UAE [ICFUAE] told The New Arab.

Human Rights Watch slammed the "ludicrous" arrest and said it was symbolic of the country's intolerance for differing opinions. 

Amnesty International has previously accused Emirati authorities of continued arbitrary restriction of "freedoms of expression and association, using criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws to detain, prosecute, convict and imprison government critics and a prominent human rights defender".

The rulers of the UAE have declared 2019 to be "the year of tolerance".

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Ahmad's arrest has caused uproar around the world and soon prompted the UAE to change its narrative over the chain of events.

"The UAE has claimed that Ali is now being charged with filing a false report to police of having been targeted and attacked for wearing a Qatar national football team shirt; a charge to which they claim he has confessed," Radha Stirling, director of Detained In Dubai told The New Arab.

"This is not the first time an official government version of events drastically differs from that provided by an expat in UAE custody. Nor do confessions in UAE custody carry any weight, given the fact that forced confessions have been documented time and time again." 

Perhaps ironically, the UAE's strongest weapon in its fight to gold-plate its image has been the most effective tool to expose its treatment of detainees. Thanks to rights organisations and the use of social media, the plight of hundreds of foreigners who have been detained in the UAE has reached global status and been discussed among world leaders.

Matthew Hedges, a British academic visiting the UAE for academic research, was detained and convicted of spying by Emirati authorities. Hedges was given a life sentence in prison before being pardoned after his case hit world headlines.

Jamie Harron, also a Briton, was sentenced to three months in jail for accidentally touching a man in a bar while holidaying in the UAE.

Meanwhile, Scott Richards, an Australian aid worker living in Dubai, was arrested for fundraising to buy blankets for freezing Afghan children.

Even the daughter of Dubai's ruler, Sheikha Latifa bint Rashed al-Maktoum, was imprisoned after attempting to flee the country. Sheikha Latifa, with assistance from Detained In Dubai, published a video on YouTube detailing horrific torture and abuse at the hands of her father before escaping on a boat - when she was intercepted and kidnapped by commandos.

The princess disappeared for months before authorities were forced to stage a photo op to debunk claims she was being held against her will, despite the 40-minute video outlining her experience with the royal family.

It is a pattern with the UAE and other Gulf States to issue official denials and counter-narratives that absolve the government of wrongdoing, Stirling suggested. "We saw this in the abduction of Sheikha Latifa, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, in the case of Matthew Hedges, and countless examples over the last several years," she said.

A spokesperson from the International Campaign for Freedom UAE slammed what was perceived to be the UAE's hypocritical attempts to portray itself as tolerant while locking up football fans of an opposing team.

"To set up a tolerance ministry one week, then arrest a tourist for wearing the wrong football shirt the next, is quite frankly, beyond parody," said the spokesperson.

"More than anything, it is now abundantly clear that the UAE is no longer a safe tourist destination. It is about time that the UK Foreign Office accepted that fact, and revised its travel advice to the Emirates accordingly."

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