Brits, unaware of UAE laws, face high chance of arrest

Britons abroad are more likely to be arrested in the UAE than anywhere else in the world, often for breaking a law they did not know existed.

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ABU DHABI // Britons abroad are more likely to be arrested in the UAE than anywhere else in the world, and the British ambassador says many of them get into trouble "for breaking a law they did not know existed". Just under 300 British residents and tourists were arrested in the Emirates over the past year, an increase of 28 per cent from the year before, according to the annual British Behaviour Abroad report released yesterday by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The UAE rises from third place last year, when Cyprus and the US topped the list. Edward Oakden, the British ambassador to the UAE, stressed that visitors should familiarise themselves with local laws and customs. "British nationals can find themselves facing charges relating to cultural differences, such as bad language or rude gestures, where they end up being arrested for breaking a law that they did not know existed," he said.

Key concerns are drink and drug related offences, according to the report. Of those arrested here, 48 were held on drugs charges. The UK's drugs laws are more lenient than the UAE's and many prescription drugs that are forbidden here, such as the painkiller codeine, are legal in Britain, meaning visitors can be caught unawares. "In the UAE, arrests are mainly for offences relating to drugs or alcohol, for which there is zero tolerance; financial offences such as bouncing cheques; or offences against the laws relating to culture and morality, for example any display of public affection," the ambassador said.

Worldwide, 6,919 Britons were arrested overseas. Spain and the US had the highest number of arrests at 2,290 and 1,534, respectively, but with fewer visitors and residents, the UAE figures are proportionately higher. There are 55,000 British nationals living in the UAE, and 1.1 million visited over the past year. "Thousands of British nationals live, work in, or visit the UAE every year. It is a very popular destination, and for good reason," Mr Oakden said. "But please remember just as we expect foreign visitors to respect our laws and customs in the UK, the same applies in the UAE. This is a different culture and visitors should behave in an appropriate way."

The British government is trying to raise awareness of ways in which visitors can run afoul of the UAE's laws following a spate of high-profile cases. In June, it issued a warning to travellers as part of its Know Before You Go campaign, highlighting that in the UAE topless sunbathing can be punishable by imprisonment and wearing skirts above the knee is considered "unacceptable behaviour." In the most high profile case, two British nationals, Vince Accors and Michelle Palmer, were imprisoned for having sex on a Dubai beach. Two British women, Marnie Pearce and Sally Antia, were also prosecuted for adultery after their husbands reported them to police.

But the majority of cases do not make the headlines. Rob Glenn, 29, was arrested after he collided with a motorcyclist, breaking the other driver's leg. "Nobody explained anything and it was so difficult to get answers from anyone," he said. Mr Glenn, who has emigrated, said the episode has put him off returning to the UAE. His passport was confiscated for two years while he waited for the case to reach court.

"I wasn't able to travel, which I needed to do for work. I just had to wait," he said. "The whole thing was the main motivator as to why I left the country. You realise that if you get on the wrong side of the law, you don't understand the legal system and you're given very little help."  Not all of those arrested end up incarcerated. There were only 25 British nationals in UAE jails at the beginning of this month, according to embassy figures.