Swedish dentist Dubai airport saga: 'As someone who's always stopped at airports I know you need to be polite no matter where you are'

I'm no stranger to extended ordeals at immigration counters, and I can tell you that Ellie Holman's behaviour would not have been accepted at any airport

ABU DHABI. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 10 June 2017. Staff Portrait of Saeed Saeed. (Photo: Antonie Robertson)

Last week, I was only a few steps away from clearing passport control at Dubai International Airport when I realised that my wallet was missing.

I broke out in a cold sweat and was frantically searching my pockets and hand luggage before an Emirati airport official came up to me and asked me: "what are you looking for?" in a serious tone.

I told him that I had misplaced my wallet, and he asked for my full name, pausing a second before grinning and flashing my wallet at me, which he had been hiding behind his back. I'd left it on a bench while swiping my passport through the E-Gate booth.

“Have a good night,” he said, before walking off.

This is just one of the pleasant experiences I have had in Dubai International: the service I have experienced over the last seven years has been orderly, and the systems increasingly customer friendly.

Read more: Is the coverage of the deported Swedish woman anything more than fake news? 

This is why I was shocked and rather cynical that, only a month before my lost wallet encounter, Swedish-Iranian traveller Ellie Holeman alleged she was mistreated at the same airport by passport control officials. I say “allegedly” because it only took a few days for her colourful tale to change.

She was not arrested for having a glass of wine on her Emirates flight from the UK as first claimed in some British media outlets, it was more to do with her belligerent behaviour aimed at officials at the airport's immigration desk, which reportedly included 'verbal insults' and recording the exchange on a mobile phone.

'Verbally insulting' airport officials is never advisable 

Now, as anyone who travels often will tell you, dealing with immigration officials at any airport anywhere in the globe can be an exercise in defusion. The aim of the game is to keep things as pleasant and organised as possible to allow a smooth transition to the right side of the immigration counter.

This means - and it feels rather strange to actually offer such advice - not insulting airport officials while brandishing an expired passport.

I obey the defusion principle more than most. I'm a frequent traveller of an African background, and I'm Muslim, a faith that some nations unfortunately find suspect. This all means I am no stranger to extended ordeals at immigration counters, to bag searches and even of airport interrogation rooms.

Yet, despite the overall unpleasant nature of such ordeals, common sense and good manners often result in a favourable outcome.

I experienced this first hand in 2015 when myself and a Jordanian, from another flight, were escorted to a sterile room in Los Angeles airport for “further enquiries.” I watched aghast as the Jordanian angrily accused officials of suspecting he was a “terrorist” just because of his Islamic faith.

The immigration officer, an African-American, warned him to calm down and that if he used “that word” again the situation “would escalate”.

When it came to my turn with the official, I merely answered over a dozen questions in addition to providing him the web link which contained over a 1,000 stories I had written for The National before I was let go.

I had another situation in an airport in the Levant: the official was dubious of my Australian passport, despite the fact it was well worn and full of travel stamps, probably because of the way I look. Despite the fact that I had to resort to answering inane questions, such as explaining where in Australia Melbourne was located, I managed to maintain my smile and I carried on.

After stamping my passport, the officer smiled and almost apologetically stated that he was just going through the process.

And that’s what it's all about essentially. The exchanges we have at most international airports are a necessary dance we must all engage in. Unless you are Ellie Holeman, who thought she could come to Dubai and dance to her own tune.


Read more from Saeed:

Part-time work in the UAE: What working at a video store when I was 15 taught me about life

Domestic workers who take care of our families and homes are 'silent heroes'

The natoor is an enduring reminder of old-school ways