Over the weekend, the media was in an uproar over the arrest of a Norwegian woman working in the supposedly cosmopolitan city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The woman, Marte Dalelv, went to a police station after being raped while intoxicated by another worker, a Sudanese man. She was instead charged with the crime of sex outside of marriage, as well as drinking alcohol, and was later charged with giving a false statement after her lawyer advised that she change part of her story to placate officials. Dalelv was released on bail, and then later pardoned by the Emirati government following the outcr, especially in Norway.
While this would seem to be an isolated case, Dubai's status as a city of the future runs in conflict with the Emirati laws and customs, which remain steeped in traditional Islamic interpretations of the law, also known as shari'a. Consequently, there are several other seemingly innocuous crimes that are considered felonies in the United Arab Emirates. Here are some examples of these crimes:
1. Taping anyone without permission, even if he's doing something wrong
Just before the Dalelv story broke, a man was arrested in Dubai in connection to a YouTube video of an Emirati official assaulting an Asian bus driver following a traffic incident. The charge? Shooting said video. UAE law prohibits public area recordings without first granting permission of anyone who is being recorded. Under normal circumstances, this law is not particularly enforced, but given that the video involves a public official and native Emirati, the full weight of the law was brought down on the man shooting the video. It should be noted that native Emiratis, which make up under 17% of the country's total population, are the only people allowed citizenship in the country.
2. Bouncing a check
The banking system in the UAE remains attached to traditional forms of Islamic banking. As such, writing a bad check can mean that the person will be jailed until they can pay the amount they wrote on the check. Notably, a person can escape this by leaving the country, but then the country will resort to the modern method of collecting debts: Debt collection agencies that call you at 2 A.M. asking for money. In recent months, due to an uptick of native Emiratis who were bouncing checks, over 1,000 check bouncers were released from jail by presidential decree. A set of laws, one for Emiratis and the other for expats and migrants, were recently passed that softens the criminal measures against bouncing checks, but the practice has not been completely decriminalized.
3. Or going into debt, for that matter
As stated before, traditional Islamic banking is the norm in the UAE. Many loans, called qard hassan (good loans), lack interest rates, as such practices are considered usury and thus haraam (or sinful). However, to make up for the lack of interest payments, debtors who default are to be imprisoned for failing to pay their debts, leaving them there until the debt is repaid. Such practices used to be common in the West until the 19th century, and now only sporadically appear in some other countries. The threat of jail was evident in a recent downturn in Dubai, when expats defaulting on their loans would abandon their luxury cars at the Dubai International Airport parking lot to avoid the banks and police.
4. Inappropriate (body) language
Act as normal as one can when in Dubai, and never swear in public. Making obscene gestures, including giving someone the middle finger (or Arab/Middle Eastern equivalents thereof), will land someone in prison. Talking in cusses or lewd language will get you a citation or imprisonment, and even raising one's voice in anger can cause jail time. Also, if a person has a significant other of the opposite sex (and only the opposite sex), they must avoid getting all touchy-feely in public, or even kissing, as public displays of affection will also result in prison time.
5. Carrying a poppy seed bagel
Some people may recall the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine keeps failing her drug test, only for her to discover the reason being her innocently eating poppy seed bagels. Poppy seeds are the source of opium and heroin. Given the strict drug laws in the Middle East, carrying that poppy seed bagel around in the UAE will result in an arrest for drug possession, which not includes a lengthy jail sentence, but other punishments such as torture and beatings in the desert. In some ways, the situation is made harsher by Dubai's status as an international trade center, and its close proximity to Afghanistan, the top producer of opium in the world.