Police, the public and a question of trust

Survey responses suggest almost half of UAE crimes may go unreported, with westerners and Asians showing the deepest doubts about dealing with the police.

Survey responses suggest almost half of UAE crimes may go unreported, with westerners and Asians showing the deepest doubts about dealing with the police. Almost half of survey respondents who said that they experienced or witnessed some kind of crime in the UAE did not report it to police. Less than half of those polled said they would definitely dial 999 if they witnessed or experienced a crime.

And only about one in 10 said they would contact the police if they were the victim of a crime. Forty-four per cent of the 822 respondents who had some experience with crime failed to notify authorities. Among westerners the rate was more than half, 53 per cent, and among Asians almost two-thirds, 63 per cent. However, even 30 per cent of Emiratis and 20 per cent of Arab expatriates chose not to involve the authorities.

Overall, this reluctance was most pronounced in Dubai (50 per cent) and Sharjah (46 per cent) but still notable in Abu Dhabi (39 per cent) and the other emirates (29 per cent). The entire sample of 1,072 respondents was then asked if they would contact the police if they experienced or witnessed a crime in the future. Overall, less than half (49 per cent) said yes, in all circumstances, but westerners were the most reluctant to engage with the authorities: only 33 per cent said they would do so.

Only half of Emiratis (53 per cent) would involve the law, while Arab expatriates (65 per cent) were the most likely to dial 999. Overall, only 11 per cent of all respondents would contact the authorities if they were victims of a crime, with little variation in this proportion between emirates and other nationalities. More than a quarter, 27 per cent, said they would decide whether or not to involve the police depending on the severity and nature of the offence.

"As a foreigner, you don't have an idea about the authorities here; how just, how efficient and if you could trust them," said Dr Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser and security programme director at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, "This is across the board, not only here." For the public to trust the authorities, he said, there had to be a "system to make sure everyone has access to the justice system and the ability to complain about the police if they abuse the law".

The Government, he said, "should show publicly that police are part of the law, not above it. It is two-way traffic; police have the authority to enforce the law and I have the authority to police the police". The survey also reveals another perception that the authorities are anxious to address: that the police might be biased against certain nationalities. Although only five per cent overall said their decision on whether or not to involve the authorities depended on the nationality or status of the other party, 18 per cent of westerners expressed this concern, which was not shared by a single Emirati.

Of the 361 respondents who said they would not involve the police if they experienced or witnessed a crime, almost half (47 per cent) said they would fear being accused of wrongdoing as a consequence. This concern was slightly higher in Abu Dhabi (56 per cent) than in Dubai (45 per cent). Westerners (49 per cent), Arab expatriates (48 per cent) and Asians (46 per cent) all expressed similar levels of concern, but even Emiratis (37 per cent) demonstrated considerable distrust.

Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said that while the findings were not "that surprising", he urged caution in interpreting them. Various factors could affect people's answers; there were some cases, he said, when Emiratis or expatriates might not want to go to the police because of the lengthy process involved in reporting a crime. They might not have the time, due to travel or other reasons.

Some lack of confidence in the police was attributable to cultural differences. Thirty-four per cent said they were unfamiliar with the law and authorities in this country and would be uncomfortable dealing with them. This concern was greatest among Asians (42 per cent) but shared by 27 per cent of Arab expatriates and westerners. The language barrier was also cited as daunting by 31 per cent overall, and was of most concern to westerners (45 per cent).

Major Gen Khamis al Meziena, the deputy head of Dubai Police, attributed the lack of trust from some segments of the community to their cultural backgrounds and to their perceptions of law-enforcement authorities in their home countries. But he was reluctant to accept that there were language barriers between the force and non-Arabic speakers. "We are training our staff on several languages and we do not have communication problems," he said.

Nevertheless, overall 34 per cent believed the authorities would not do much to help them, ranging from 24 per cent of Emiratis, a low vote of confidence in their own country's system, to a shockingly high 71 per cent of westerners. Overall, 18 per cent state that they do not trust the authorities. Again, westerners (29 per cent) are the most cynical. These responses, indicating that many illegal acts might be going unreported to the police, suggest that crime statistics might be woefully shy of reality.

However, clearing up cultural misunderstandings was not a job solely for the Government, Dr Karasik said. "There is a general misunderstanding among certain populations in the UAE when it comes to rules and regulations," he said. "What needs to be done is that before people come to this country, they should be aware of the rules. This is up to the individuals, not the Dubai Government or the Abu Dhabi Government."