Discrimination, Verbal Assaults and the Internet – is the UAE doing more harm than good to its brand?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to local dramas. For years we’ve had cases of messy divorces, affairs and other issues which have spilled into the local media here in the UAE. However, these soaps have been superseded thanks to a glut of new laws (or a stricter implementation of existing laws) relating to personal rights and freedom of speech.

Only this week, there have been two cases which have made regional headlines. The first has been the arrest of a man at Abu Dhabi Airport for what has been best described as a rant after he missed his connecting flight. I’ll quote from the article in the English-language newspaper Emirates 24/7:

Emirati Police recently arrested a British citizen of Indian origin for allegedly insulting security personnel, the airline’s employee and the UAE, using obscene words, after he missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi.

He missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India caused by delays of his earlier flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.

Lieutenant Colonel Fares Al Bakiri from CID, Abu Dhabi Police, who is heading the investigations, explained that the incident took place a week ago when the traveler arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport on a delayed flight from Heathrow Airport resulting in missing the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India. He started swearing at the airline’s employee, and blocked the passengers’ queue behind him, insisting to board his connecting flight although the gate was closed and the aircraft is about to take off.

The second story this week involves the first case brought under the UAE’s new anti-discrimination law. Aimed at making hate speech a legal offence, the law imposes a jail term up to 10 years and a fine of between 50,000 dirhams to two million dirhams on any person or group causing offense or aiming to create discord in the country. To get back to the case, here’s the story from the English-language daily The National:

A high-ranking Dubai security chief has launched a criminal complaint against a Saudi writer under the new law against hate crime.

Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan, deputy chief of police and general security, accuses the writer, Dr Mohammed Al Hadif, of spreading hatred of the UAE on social media.

“We are organising a case now to pursue him, according to the new law,” Gen Khalfan said on Twitter. “Criticism is one thing and hatred is another thing. The case has been filed, Al Hadif is wanted, and it’s time to try him in court.”

Gen Khalfan, the former Chief of Dubai Police, has previously accused Dr Al Hadif of being a member of an organisation linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The writer has been a vocal critic of the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen, and of the UAE’s relations with Iran. Last year, Saudi Arabia banned him from using Twitter because of his support for the Brotherhood and for the reinstatement of the former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

The law criminalising all forms of discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin was enacted on July 20.

Penalties for those convicted range from six months to more than 10 years in prison and fines from Dh50,000 to Dh2 million.​

To repeat, the defendant isn’t in the UAE, but rather Saudi Arabia. And my assumption is that he’s speaking or airing his views from Saudi Arabia which is outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction.

As a global hub, the UAE has done brilliantly at carving out a reputation as a business-friendly country which welcomes all who want to invest and live in the country. However, with other recent cases in mind, is the UAE at risk of damaging its own hard-earned reputation as the place to be by making examples of individuals in difficult circumstances or who are outside of their own jurisdiction?

I can imagine that we all would be peeved after missing our connecting flight, while I can’t help but think that it’s better to engage proactively with those who share different views rather than take them to court, especially if they’re not in my jurisdiction when they commit a crime which the other country made not consider to be a crime.

While the law is the law, I can’t help but feel a dollop of common sense wouldn’t go amiss here, especially if the UAE is to continue its brand building project to shape in our minds the image of a country where we all want to be in, live and support. Are these cases doing more harm than good to the UAE’s reputation, and should we all be more forgiving when it comes to such cases where a touch of empathy would help to resolve the situation.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

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