From drinking wine on a plane, to calling someone a ‘horse’ on Facebook: Here are 5 times Westerners got in trouble with Dubai’s strict legal system

Dubai is often held up as a haven of liberal Western values in the Middle East, but its laws are often surprisingly strict.

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Dubai is often held up as a haven of liberal Western values in the Middle East, but its laws are often surprisingly strict.
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • The United Arab Emirates attracts millions of tourists and expats as a supposed haven of liberal Western values in the Middle East.
  • However, the Gulf state frequently arrests foreigners for behaviors that would be considered harmless, and completely legal, in the West.
  • Westerners have been arrested for things like social media insults or drinking wine on a plane.
  • An advocate for detained foreigners told Business Insider that most people don’t fully appreciate the risks associated with traveling to the UAE.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

Insulting someone on Facebook, wearing a Qatar soccer jersey, drinking wine on a plane – these are all things that could potentially get you arrested in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In recent years, millions of tourists and expats have flocked to the country, especially to its luxurious emirate Dubai. But even though the UAE markets itself as an oasis of freedom in the Gulf, it often cracks down on behaviors that foreigners never dreamed could be illegal.

Radha Stirling helps many of these foreigners with her NGO Detained in Dubai. She told Business Insider that foreigners often don’t appreciate the risk they are taking when traveling to Dubai.

“People are convicted every day in cases that would be instantly thrown out of a Western court either for lack of evidence, improper procedure, or for just being frivolous,” she said.

There have been several high profile cases of Westerners claiming unfair imprisonment in recent years. Here are just a handful of examples.


Laleh Shahravesh, who faced jail for calling her ex-husband’s new wife a “horse” on Facebook

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Laleh Shahravesh with her daughter and ex-husband.
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(Detained in Dubai)

In March, British mother Laleh Shahravresh was arrested for calling her ex-husband’s new wife a “horse” in a Facebook comment, according to Detained in Dubai.

Shahravresh made the posts three years ago when she was in London, said the campaigners. But she and her teenage daughter were detained when they flew to the Dubai to attend her former partner’s funeral.

Read more: A British woman is facing jail in Dubai after she called her ex-husband’s new wife a ‘horse’ on Facebook 3 years ago

Authorities cited the country’s strict cyber crime laws against online harassment, and threatened her with 2 years in jail and a $65,000 fine.

After the single mother depleted her savings awaiting the trial in a hotel room, she was freed in mid-April after paying an $800 fine.

Stirling, the CEO of Detained in Dubai, said the organization was relieved that Shahravresh could return to her daughter, but that the case set a dangerous precedent.

“Anyone exercising their freedom of speech, who lives in, visits, or indeed, who may ever step foot in the UAE is at risk,” she said in a statement.


Ali Issa Ahmad, who was allegedly beaten up for wearing a Qatari soccer shirt but accused of faking his injuries

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Ali Issa Ahmad.
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(Screengrab/Sky News)

In January, security personnel attacked Ali Issa Ahmad for wearing a Qatari jersey to a soccer match in the UAE, campaigners said.

The British-Sudanese security guard reported the incident to local authorities. But they accused him of faking his injuries, and arrested him.

It is illegal to show sympathy for Qatar in the UAE, as the countries are embroiled in a longstanding political dispute over Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism.

The UAE maintains that Ahmad was put behind bars because he “wasted police time,” The Guardian reported.

Ahmad was locked up in Sharjah, a city that forms part of the greater Dubai metropolitan area. Sharjah has an especially problematic human rights record, according to Detained in Dubai.

When he was allowed to return to the UK in February, he told The Guardian that he was stabbed, punched, and deprived of food and water for days at a time.

“I thought 100% that I was going to die in the UAE,” he said.


Andy Neal, who was arrested on charges related to supplying drugs, which he strenuously denies

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Andy Neal.
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(Detained in Dubai)

British war veteran Andy Neal has been locked up in the UAE on false drug charges since October 2018, according to campaigners.

The former soldier moved to Dubai with his family in 2015 to live as a civilian and run a dog training business.

He was arrested on charges related to supplying drugs, even though drugs were never found in his possession or blood stream, Detained in Dubai said. A witness who supposedly implicated him said they never mentioned Neal, they add.

The father of two was recently moved to a prison in Abu Dhabi where conditions are poor, and he has limited contact with the outside world, the NGO said.

“He has experienced enough trauma in his life; it breaks my heart that this is happening to my son,” Neal’s mother Sue said about her son who suffers from PTSD.

In late April, the Daily Mail reported that Neal’s case will be presented to the United Nations


Ellie Holman, who was detained after drinking a glass of wine on her flight to Dubai

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Ellen Holman with her daughter.
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(Detained in Dubai)

Dr. Ellie Holman was detained for drinking a glass of wine on an Emirates Airline flight to Dubai in July 2018.

An immigration official asked the Swedish-born dentist if she had consumed alcohol after a disagreement about her visa escalated, activists said. She said she drank a complementary glass of wine on the plane.

The official replied that the possession of alcohol is illegal in the UAE, even if the drink is already in someone’s body, according to Detained in Dubai.

Dr. Holman, who lives in the UK, and her four-year-old daughter were put in a cell, which she said was filthy and hot. She claims did not sleep the three days while in the cell for fear of being raped by guards.

Holman was eventually released and returned home to the UK.

“So far this situation has cost me around £30,000 in legal fees, expenses and missed work. My practice is closed. All of our savings are gone,” Holman said at the time.


Matthew Hedges, a PhD student who was accused of being a spy

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Matthew Hedges.
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(Screengrab/BBC)

Matthew Hedges, a British PhD student, was jailed in May 2018 for spying in the UAE when he traveled to the country to research his doctoral thesis on national security.

He was forced to sign a false confession in Arabic, locked up in solitary confinement, and sentenced to life in jail, Detained in Dubai said.

Read more: British student accused of spying in UAE says he was drugged, forced to sign a false confession, and bribed to betray his country

The UAE pardoned the academic in November after intense pressure from the international community.

Hedges told BBC News that he will “take years to recover” from the experience. He said he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and forced to stand in ankle cuffs.

Hedges only confessed to spying for the UK’s intelligence service MI6 because he was being tortured, he told the BBC.