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  • Writer's pictureDetained in Dubai

British FCO confirms it is illegal for tourists to drink alcohol in the UAE and even in flight

Following widespread confusion regarding the alcohol laws in the UAE, the UK government has advised citizens that it is wholly illegal for tourists to drink alcohol in the country or even onboard flights destined to or through Dubai. Detained in Dubai will be contacting relevant airlines to discuss their policies.

Ellie Holman was recently charged with invading the privacy of an official at Dubai International Airport and consuming a glass of wine provided to her by Emirates Airlines highlighting alcohol laws in the gulf state. She was jailed with her 4 year old daughter for 3 days and kept in the country to face prosecution. The British consular office has responded by clarifying alcohol laws for citizens and undoubtedly, shocking many tourists and expats who believed alcohol consumption was, in fact, legal:

Sparking international concern, members of the public contacted Emirates customer service about their rules on alcohol. The airline confirmed that they would happily serve as much alcohol as a passenger requests so long as they do not become unruly, even though serving alcohol criminalises the passenger, leaving them potentially open to litigation for breaching their duty of care.

Dubai government’s airline provided Dr. Ellie Holman with a complimentary glass of wine, surely knowing that this would make her vulnerable to arrest the moment she landed in the UAE, due to that country’s incomprehensible laws on alcohol; the UAE has only exposed itself to further criticism.

The government’s newspaper The National published in 2013 “tourists are left in a legal grey area, and while most will leave the country in blissful ignorance that they have broken the law, legal experts warn events can turn sour in a heartbeat for the unlucky few.”

A public prosecutor said “The law forgot about the tourist entirely and this is going to affect tourism in Dubai” and needed to be corrected, “pointing out that any tourist who inadvertently fell foul of the law would not return to their home country with complimentary tales of the emirate.” The confusing situation has been under scrutiny for years but the government appears to have chosen to pursue glossy public relations endeavours over legal reform.

Dr. Holman has told media that she did indeed encounter a problem with a hostile immigration official, who subsequently targeted her for a blood alcohol test in retaliation for her challenging his claim that she could not enter the country, and because she did attempt to document his aggression using her mobile phone camera. Following her detention, her lawyers then advised her that the immigration official had in fact, requested tens of thousands of pounds from her to “drop the case”.

Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, commented “Ellie’s arrest highlights two issues that are ongoing risks to travellers. One is that it is entirely illegal for tourists to consume alcohol, even if it is a minute amount and was provided by a licensed vendor or airline. Often alcohol charges are opened because they are easy to prosecute, rather than prosecuting for another charge that would be harder to prove. Another issue has been that complaints are opened against victims for the sole purpose of requesting compensatory payments to cancel the case. The complainant is not required to prove that the person was offensive, his word is enough to secure a prosecution. This leads to false accusations for extortive purpose and has been the cause of many wrongful detentions.

Emirates Airlines, Dubai’s official airline, wholly owned by the government of Dubai, engages in a regular practice of criminalising customers when they provide alcoholic beverages free of charge to passengers traveling from the UK to the UAE. Upon arrival, every single passenger who accepted the free drinks is technically in violation of Dubai’s strict prohibition of alcohol, and could be arbitrarily arrested the moment they disembark the plane. It does not matter that the alcohol was neither purchased nor consumed in the UAE, nor does it matter that the alcohol was complimentary; if any trace of alcohol is found in a passenger’s bloodstream, they could face up to a year in prison.

Emirates Airlines is owned by the government of Dubai; the government of Dubai gave Dr. Holman a complimentary glass of wine on her flight, and then the government of Dubai detained her and charged her for accepting it. Visitors to the UAE are deliberately given the impression by the country’s own national carriers, that drinking alcohol is allowed, when in fact, it is illegal. It is a crime in the UAE to consume alcohol in any establishment that sells it, if you do not possess a drinking license, and such licenses are not available for tourists. No one told Dr. Holman this, and in fact, no one is ever told”.

Detained in Dubai said “Even for expats who hold a license, it is still illegal to have a blood alcohol content in public. Anyone drinking at a licensed hotel, restaurant or bar can still be arrested for having a blood alcohol reading in public. Licenses are issued by each emirate and are only valid in that same emirate. Thus, if someone has a Dubai issued license, they can not drink in Abu Dhabi.”

Emirates Airlines, among others, who fail to inform passengers about the UAE’s strict and deceptive laws on alcohol. What happened to Dr. Holman has, in fact, happened to many others. Any airline, tourism company, hotel, restaurant, or indeed any governmental office issuing travel warnings to their citizens, must bear the responsibility of ensuring that travellers are aware of the laws in the UAE; particularly the rules on alcohol, to prevent them from being victimised as Dr Holman was.

Stirling said "In light of the FCO's announcement, we will be contacting all airlines who transit to or through the UAE to clarify their position on serving alcohol to passengers. Either the UAE will need to reform their laws urgently, or the airlines will need to update their policy to ensure the safety of customers".

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