Potential fundraisers warned over Dubai’s strict charity law

The case of an expatriate arrested for allegedly breaking the law by using Facebook to promote a foreign refugee charity without a permit has put into the spotlight a law that many residents know little about.

British-Australian dual national Scott Richards, who wanted to raise money for Afghans who fled their country’s long war, was detained by Dubai Police, his supporters say. (Detained in Dubai photo via AP)
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DUBAI // Charity may begin at home but now, in Dubai, it can end somewhere else – prison.

Lawyers have warned residents and companies to make sure they are aware of the rules on helping good causes and the stringent penalties – up to a Dh100,000 fine and a year in jail – if, knowingly or unwittingly, they embark on illegal fund-raising.

Dubai lawyer Faisal Al Zarooni said last year’s Decree No 9, issued by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, prohibited the collection of donations or advertising of fund-raising campaigns through all forms of media in Dubai without obtaining prior written approval from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (Iacad).

But the decree does not apply in Abu Dhabi or other emirates, however, as they have their own guidelines.

“The decree requires the receiver to obtain a written approval from Iacad before collecting the donations, and the receiver requires approval from Iacad on the ways of spending these donations,” Mr Al Zarooni said.

“Iacad has the right to monitor the process of the fund-raising and audit the amount collected from donations.

“This is in place to make sure that funds are being collected and distributed appropriately.”

The case of Australian-British national Scott Richards, who is alleged to have breached laws governing charitable causes, has shone light on the strict regulation concerning fund-raising campaigns and activities, some of which might not have occurred to residents, businesses and organisations before now.

Mr Richards was reported to have been arrested by Dubai Police for allegedly using Facebook to promote a US-registered charity supporting refugees in Afghanistan without having permission from Iacad.

“The only legal way of fund-raising is to get written approval from Iacad,” said Mr Al Zarooni. “The exceptions are the initiatives made by the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Council, the Crown Princes and the Government institutions – and all these initiatives shall be coordinated with Iacad.”

Establishing and managing a website and using any other IT or electronic means to promote the collection of donations without a permit is also punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine of between Dh250,000 and Dh500,000.

Aside from money, donations of other goods for charitable causes – such as books, clothing, toiletries or bedding – are also prohibited under the law without having the necessary permission.

“Under the decree, possessions are included and involve gifts, clothes or other donations in-kind or of any value,” said Mr Al Zarooni.

“The decree specifically addresses organisations, NGOs and individuals who wish to raise funds, and does not mention those who donate.”

That implied that the law was targeting the fund-raisers, rather than those who donate.

Hassan Elhais, legal consultant at Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants, said people who raised money without the required approval should expect to feel the heat.

“The authorities are prompt to take action against such offenders as soon as they are alerted to their activities,” he said. “Unfortunately, the exact number of cases is not known as such figures are not made public.”

Mr Elhais said while, in principle, all fund-raising efforts – including emergency fund-raising – would require approval from Iacad, the body distinguished between volunteering and fund-raising initiatives.

“It has confirmed that pro bono services and other voluntary acts shall not fall under the purview of the fund-raising decree,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it is advisable to approach Iacad to get proper guidance on the correct process to avoid being on the wrong side of the law.”

Dubai authorities said the law was put in place to ensure money reached the people for whom it was intended, and that only a limited number of charities were approved and licensed by Iacad.