What may seem like an innocent gesture to an uninitiated westerner, could have far-ranging consequences in the UAE, where laws related to privacy and public decency are far more stringent.
A spate of recent cases have put such laws once again in the spotlight and serve as a reminder to people that although the UAE is an open and hospitable country, it is wise to err on the side of caution when it comes to public gestures.
On Sunday morning a Scottish tourist, Jamie Harron, 27, was at Dubai Criminal Court charged with sexual assault after an incident where he allegedly touched a German man's bottom at a bar in Barsha Heights.
The German had called police after saying the Scot, an electrician on a two-day stopover in Dubai on his way to work in Afghanistan, touched him and then shown his middle finger when the accuser had questioned what he was up to.
The defendant denies any wrongdoing, saying he merely reached out and touched the man’s hip for stability in a busy bar, to stop himself from spilling a drink.
Mr Harron has also been charged at Dubai Court of Misdemeanours with publicly indecency by flashing his middle finger, a gesture deemed rude at worst in the west but one that can carry severe consequences here.
In addition, he was charged at the lesser court with consuming alcohol without a licence, a charge that is rarely seen on its own but is often tagged on by prosecutors when other offences are at play. The charge is a legal grey area when applied to tourists as they cannot obtain a licence to drink alcohol from authorities when they are not resident in the country.
A verdict is due on October 22.
Last month, another Briton was charged over raising his middle finger in a road rage incident.
Jamil Ahmed Mukadam, a 23-year-old IT worker from Leicester, stuck his middle finger up at a driver while making his way to Dubai airport in a rental car with his wife in February.
The tourist and regular Dubai visitor now fears being banned from travelling to the UAE once his case is heard.
He was arrested last month on arrival in Dubai and was detained for two days. He was charged and released on bail and he is staying at a hotel waiting to hear whether his case will be going to court.
What the legal professionals say
Judge Ahmad Saif, head of Dubai Civil Court, said that committing an indecent act can “harm a person’s honour and dignity” and it is “punishable by law”.
Judge Saif said that article 121 of law 3 relates to crimes against honour and morality and it states that a person committing an indecent act can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
“Intentionally touching a woman or a man inappropriately is considered a sexual insult. In such cases, a judge ruling over the case looks at different factors, including whether the suspect intentionally touched the victim,” judge Saif said.
“But a person convicted of flashing their middle finger will face a hefty fine and an imprisonment period from three months to three years.
“When a tourist faces charges in court for public indecency, the judge might take into consideration that the suspect is not familiar with UAE law and reduce the suspect’s sentence.
“Westerners’ culture differs from Arab culture. In their countries, flashing your middle finger or insulting another is not acceptable but it is not punishable by the law. The culture for people living in the UAE is much different. At the end of the day, we are Muslims and committing such acts is not acceptable.”
Judge Saif said that tourists and newcomers to the UAE need to be given more information about the laws of the land and what is unacceptable.
Abdulla Galadari, partner at Galadari Advocates & Legal Consultants, reacting to reports in the UK that the parents of Mr Harron urged tourists not to come to the UAE in light of what has happened, said that laws must be respected.
“All people must respect the laws of countries they go to, and this young man allegedly broke UAE law several times during his visit to the emirate three months ago; namely by inappropriately touching another man’s behind then using an inappropriate hand gesture when his victim confronted him, all under the influence of alcohol,” said Mr Galadari, who added that all nationalities are treated the same under UAE law.
“While it is entirely up to the court to decide whether this person is guilty or not, I would like to emphasise the importance of adhering to all local laws and regulations when visiting other countries and, taking all things into consideration, I have absolute faith in our judicial system that it will have an impartial decision.”