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Mon 13 Aug 2018 10:55 AM

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Swedish visitor case puts Dubai's laws back in the spotlight

The tabloid coverage of Ellie Holman's treatment at a UAE airport ought to remind expats and visitors just what the country's laws are, says Keren Bobker

Swedish visitor case puts Dubai's laws back in the spotlight
The recent incident serves as a reminder to visitors and residents about the laws that need to be understood and respected. Photo by Tom DulatGetty Images

Like any tabloid tale, there was a rather large gulf between Swedish expat Ellie Holman’s account of her detention at Dubai International Airport and the subsequent official explanation.

“Arrested for drinking alcohol on a plane” screamed the British red-tops, with testimony supplied by an advocacy group whose raison d’etre is demonising Dubai. “Detained for arriving without a valid passport and abusing immigration staff,” countered the Attorney General’s office in a statement that withdrew much of the sting of Ms Holman’s allegations.

The incident serves as a reminder to visitors and residents about the laws that need to be understood and respected.

We asked Keren Bobker, an independent financial advisor who hosts “New to Dubai” orientation sessions for expats, to clarify the reality behind the headlines.

How rare, in your experience, are these kinds of incidents for expats, British or otherwise? 
Considering the number of British expats either resident in the UAE or who come here on holiday, I think the number of problems is actually very small. I am sure there are incidents everywhere around the world but there appears to be an additional, somewhat malicious, interest from the British press when anything happens in Dubai. It should be said, too, that although this case has been covered in all the UK press, Ellie Holman is not British, but is simply a UK resident.

This did seem to be more about behaviour at immigration, didn’t it?
Without being there, or having seen any footage, I really can’t comment. I would just say that in today’s world all major airports are almost permanently on high alert so any untoward behaviour is going to be dealt with strictly, no matter where someone is.

Although the Attorney General denied alcohol was behind her detention, what is your advice about alcohol consumption in the UAE?
Anyone in the UAE would be wise to be careful when consuming alcohol, especially as the law seems a little grey – certainly in respect of tourists. My understanding is that tourists are okay to drink alcohol in the hotel in which they are staying but that’s pretty much it.

In reality, the UAE authorities don’t seem to mind if this rule is bent provided people behave decently. The laws is clear in that being intoxicated in public is illegal so if people drink with a degree of moderation then it is highly unlikely to ever be a problem. As with most things in life, common sense applies.

What additional precautions would you advise?
I’m sure all Dubai residents are aware that they should have an alcohol licence, and this applies if you keep alcohol in your home as well as consuming it elsewhere.

I know that quite a few don’t have one and it is one of those things that is not an issue until it is. You only need to be accidentally caught up in an incident when you have had a drink to be charged with drinking without a licence. I question if it is worth the risk of not having one, especially considering the cost of the licence in comparison to the cost of buying alcohol here.

In light these kinds of negative headlines, should there be clearer communication from the authorities to ensure such transgressions are minimised?
It has been mentioned by many that there is a slight disconnect in the way Dubai is presented and the rules that need to be observed when you’re here. I think those selling holiday packages have a duty of care to point people in the direction of facts regarding appropriate behaviour, although one could argue that it is very easy for anyone to find out some basic details of the country they are visiting. Perhaps airlines could hand out little booklets with some useful tips?

In your sessions, how do advise newcomers to Dubai to avoid falling foul of the law?
Find out the facts, not just hearsay, and err on the side of caution. The UK press, for instance, likes to paint Brits as victims rather than people who have been foolish or have made mistakes – but the laws of the country apply to Brits abroad, too. Dubai is the most tolerant place in the Gulf but being mindful of local sensibilities makes for an easier life for everyone.

Keren Bobker also moderates the British Expats in Dubai Facebook Page