How the UAE has taken a new approach to protect and serve

This year, community service has increasingly been used as a tactic to combat antisocial behaviour in the Emirates

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - February 8, 2009: Police clean up the scene of an accident, involving multiple cars at the corner of 15th Street and Airport Road in Abu Dhabi. 

( Ryan Carter/The National )

When three men in March fed a cat to two starved Rottweilers, the video went viral and ­judgment was swift. Sheikh ­Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, ordered them to clean Dubai Zoo for four hours a day for three months, working into the heat of a UAE summer.

It was the second such sentence delivered by Sheikh Mohammed this spring. A few weeks earlier, a 17-year-old driver and two of his friends arrested for stunt driving at Dubai's City Walk were ordered to sweep the streets.

Crimes like these would normally be punishable by a fine and a wag of the finger. But these men were the first to fall under an updated penal code, and their sentence set a precedent: community service is here to stay.

“Now that they have introduced community service, judges have a way to avoid sending people to jail. This is better,” says Mohammed Al Hammadi, a practising Emirati criminal lawyer and assistant professor of criminal law at UAE University’s College of Law.

“Going to jail would be like a stamp on your life forever unless people forgive you. In the UAE, we are tribes, and if somebody knows you went to jail, there’s going to be a big question mark over you that will spread to your family and your extended family.”

Pictures of young men, photographed from behind with their faces hidden, have started to appear regularly in the news – groups of two or three with brooms in hand, sweeping in sync. Local media reported that 25 men were sentenced to community service in Abu Dhabi in the first seven weeks of the initiative, from March 1. Last week, photographs showed five men sentenced for reckless driving in Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafra Region working at a petrol service station and cleaning outside Ruwais Hospital.

Nearly all offenders to date have been young Emirati men arrested for anti-social behaviour such as stunt driving. Orders typically included cleaning the streets, gardening and pumping petrol, in addition to licence and vehicle confiscation and steep fines. In one instance, the Abu Dhabi Judicial ­Department (ADJD) released a headshot of a nameless 19-year-old driver in a bright-green jumpsuit with a video of him drifting and hitting a bystander on a curb.

The October overhaul was part of a wider liberalisation of the country's justice system. Previously, judges had two choices on sentencing for minor offences: they either sent the culprits back to their parents with a rebuke and a fine or sent them to jail with the consequence of a criminal record. For young offenders committing minor offences, judges usually opted for the latter.

"Community service gives young offenders a chance to reconsider their actions," says Salah Al Junaibi, the director of the ­Institutional Communication and International Cooperation Bureau at ADJD. "This alternative makes those young offenders active in the community, makes them contribute and makes them aware of the action that they have done. Last but not least, it avoids jailing people."

Reputations matter everywhere. In the Arabian Gulf, it holds a particularly potency. Often, it's not the action alone that is considered problematic, but the perception of others.

“Arab society in general and tribal society in particular is pretty much governed by the binary system of honour and shame,” says Jane Bristol-Rhys, an associate professor of anthropology at Zayed University, where she has taught for 16 years.

In a small, tight-knit society where news travels fast and people have long memories, a youthful transgression can stunt employment and marriage prospects for years, not just for the concerned individual, but also their family.

“In our society, people will look at you like you are a criminal,” says Al Hammadi, who holds a doctorate in law from Georgetown University. “You will lose your friends. If you are married, you might lose you marriage. If you have a job, you may lose your job for a crime that is a petty crime. It may be a misdemeanour, but you will lose your whole life.”

Social media has also revived shaming culture the world over: once something is online, it is there for all to collectively praise or condemn, often in the strongest terms.

Judges such as Omar Karmustaji, the head of the Juvenile Court in Dubai, have long supported alternative sentencing, wanting to issue more-­severe sentences for behaviour such as reckless driving, but mindful of the lifelong repercussions for youngsters sent to prison.

Community service has been welcomed as a happy medium: the culprit is punished and, ideally, reformed and taught humility through service.

Lawyers, academics and young people strongly agree, however, that shame should not be used as a tool to discipline.

Al Junaibi explains that publishing photos is a way to reassure the public that community service is being enforced, but faces are hidden out of respect for the offender and their family.

When asked why the ADJD showed the face of one driver, he explained that this was an exceptional case.

“You have kids? Imagine they are playing outside and someone in a car comes drifting near them. You will chase that case until it’s over,” he says. “That young man should be aware of the huge mistake he has made.”

In this exceptional case, publishing the photo without the offender’s personal details was a way to balance the demands of the community while safeguarding his reputation, so that only those affected by the crime and from his immediate community would know. He was also fined Dh17,000.

"The purpose is not to embarrass him, but the community has a right to know who did this without causing him injury," Al Junaibi says.

Lawmakers have always taken reputation into account. Photographing an individual without consent can lead to jail. Wadeema's Law, named for an 8-year-old girl murdered by her father and his girlfriend, was renamed the Child Rights Law in 2013 after a vote by the Federal National ­Council to protect the family's reputation.

Judges understand reputation is always paramount. However, this understanding had reached its limits. With judges reluctant to send joyriders to jail, respect for law could be said to be found lacking. Nowhere is the impact more evident than on the roads.

Most of the offenders sentenced to community service have been reckless drivers in their late teens or early 20s.

Over the years, The National has interviewed dozens of young men who fall into the demographic targeted by the new reforms: boys drifting Nissan Patrols at midnight in Al Dhafra ­Region; drag racers in Ras Al Khaimah; underage, overconfident drivers bored in Shahamah; or youngsters helping their families in rural towns of the northern Emirates while their fathers worked in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Tailgating and speeding up to 30kph over the legal limit might be the hallmark of their behaviour on the roads, but once outside their vehicles, the same drivers are polite and gracious, often with a maturity beyond their years. Young men interviewed by The National spoke respectfully and eloquently.

Time and again, when asked about the risk to themselves, they pointed to God and fatalism. The risk to others? They hadn't thought about it much, but they considered themselves good drivers. The risk of arrest? "I am a policeman," one Ras Al Khaimah drag racer told The ­National in 2011, "but after duty, I'm not a policeman – I'm a tourist." His fellow drifters were also off-duty policemen. One was a law student. They said they all held the law, familial obligation and respect for their country in the highest regard.

None had ever met someone jailed for reckless driving. A fine meant stunt driving was discouraged, but not considered criminal, so breaking these laws carried no shame or guilt.

Bristol-Rhys believes community service may be part of larger measures to enforce discipline in a generation who have grown up with plentiful resources. “I’m taking this as another step that falls along the line of national service,” she says, adding that the introduction of national service was a positive thing.

"They came out changed people. All of a sudden [my students] were on time, they were respectful, they were taking life seriously."

This is not the first time that community service has been adopted here. According to Judge ­Karmustaji, community service was included in the country’s original 1976 penal code, but it fell out of favour. Universities have also tried to include community service as a degree requirement, but the initiative never gained momentum. Parents and students considered it degrading.

Charity and generosity are part of national narratives, and stories of individual and government donations are shared in the media. This does not, however, extend to physical labour. This is partly because of social hierarchy and class structure, academics say. Across the GCC, paid manual labour and the types of tasks done by community-service workers are ordinarily exclusively done by foreign workers. There is an entrenched association between this type of work and race, ethnicity or nationality.

While some people travelled to Kuwait and Dammam in Saudi Arabia during the 1960s to work as labourers, most of the younger generation today have never known friends of their nationality or social circle to do manual work outside public services such as the fire service and the military.

Psychologist Justin Thomas, an associate professor at Zayed University and columnist for The National, argues that issuing community service as a punishment could reinforce these stigmas.

"If you sweep streets for a living, then what is it saying about you and your occupation that society chooses your job as a punishment for offenders?" Thomas asks. Community service is part of many judicial systems across the world and Thomas believes it can stigmatise low-paid work.

“We should celebrate such work with better pay and respectful recognition of the vital role of the occupation,” he says.

When it comes to enforcement, the ADJD have stated that the public prosecution receive ­periodic reports on the behaviour and commitment of offenders, and if they do not fulfill their sentence, they will go to prison for the remainder of their sentence.

Gender is also going to be an ongoing consideration when it comes to community sentencing. Few would accept a woman doing physical work for community service, Al Hammadi says, suggesting that women may be instead given volunteer work at organisations such as the Red Crescent.

All things considered, will the new sentencing guidelines succeed? The consensus is yes.

At Abu Dhabi courts, lawyers who have worked in the judiciary for decades are strongly in favour of the reforms and are optimistic. Before Al Hammadi discu the likelihood of success, he asks those present during our interview for their opinions.

“A lot of lawyers agree that this is a good thing to do instead of putting a person who is 18 or 19 years old in jail for one month and destroying his life,” he says. “Let him do other community service that will benefit him and also benefit society.”

He believes it will stick, thanks to its implementation alongside other legal reforms.

This time, there is also strong public endorsement from police, the motorsport community and, crucially, the country's rulers. Their support is traditionally a quick way to spread social acceptance.

In downtown Abu Dhabi, young men meet at a popular cafe beside the McLaren, Bentley and Maserati dealerships in Khalidiya. Although they have little driving experience, they already have the keys to powerful SUVs.

Here, they are in favour of community service. "It's good because it will decrease the accidents on the street and it will help protect the people more," Mansour Al Hammadi, 19, a ­Government employee who drives a Nissan ­Patrol, tells me.

"It sets an example," agrees his friend Tahnoon Banimalek, who is also 19 and works for the Government.

They are about at the same age as the drag racers previously interviewed by The National in 2011, but five years later, theirs is the first generation to grow up with road-safety-awareness campaigns.

Mansour Al Hammadi once enjoyed stunt driving, but stopped when he heard of someone killed in an accident. “In this country, you think first of all about making your parents proud and you think about peoples’ lives also because you can put other people at risk.” 

He and his friends believe there is no shame in community service.

“No, because that’s work and he must be responsible for the things that he’s done. It’s not a bad thing, it’s actually good, because he’s cleaning his country.”