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Beware the Gulf’s legal gradations

The Guardian
by Raymond Barrett

Britons fall foul of the region’s legal system not because of its ‘draconian Islamic laws’, but its pecking order of privilege.

British citizens have yet again fallen foul of the law in the Arabian peninsula for “crimes” that barely seem to warrant the designation. In Dubai, a tourist was recently sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for allegedly kissing a gentleman friend while dining out in the expat enclave of Jumeirah. Meanwhile, a British expatriate faces six months in prison for allegedly “giving the finger” to an Iraqi resident of the Gulf emirate.

Despite the red-top outrage engendered by such examples of “draconian Islamic laws”, the whimsical nature of such prosecutions points towards a perennial problem for those living in all the Gulf states: fundamental difficulties with the rule of law coupled with a legal process that is opaque, capricious and lacking in equality.

The most common criticism levelled against the region is that of a two-tier legal system – one set of rules for nationals and another for foreigners. However, the reality is more a vertiginous wedding-cake structure: a pyramid scheme of legal gradations constructed from a complex blending of nationality, race, religion, diplomatic clout, social class and personal connections.

Perched clearly on top of the cake are members of the various ruling families, who can (literally) almost get away with murder. In one notorious incident, the brother of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince recorded himself brutally torturing an Afghan grain merchant who had supposedly cheated him. When pressed on the issue, the authorities said the matter had been “settled privately” and that the sheikh’s actions were not part of a “pattern of behaviour”.

Next in the pecking order of privilege are the “commoners”. Citizens of countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia clearly enjoy a de facto (if not de jure) advantage over non-nationals in the eyes of the law.

This is due in no small part to a particular phenomenon common to all the close-knit, tribally oriented Gulf countries, known in Arabic as wasta. This is the ability to use extended family or personal connections to influence or subvert due process when dealing with state institutions, be it making speeding tickets “disappear” or bypassing government red tape when conducting business. Thus, for foreigners engaged in contract disputes against nationals with substantial wasta, there is often little hope of victory, even if they are the aggrieved party.

Occupying the lower rungs of the legal ladder are non-nationals. Across the Gulf you can find a myriad of expatriates from across the globe, yet there are marked differences in how they are treated by both the police and the courts. While a domestic servant from Sri Lanka may be prosecuted for a particular crime, a British school teacher may not.

Take the perennial favourite of adultery, which is still a crime in much of the Gulf region. While Asians in domestic service are routinely prosecuted for engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, it is rare for a westerner to face such charges. And if such charges do arise, it is usually because an aggrieved lover or employer has filed a case with the police; as a rule, the authorities don’t go around knocking on bedroom doors.

When cases such as those making the news in Dubai do end up in court, they often involve either citizens or other Arabs who feel they have been “insulted” or “offended” in some way. These particular cases went to trial only after individuals had filed complaints, not because a passing policeman deemed the behaviour of those involved to be of a criminal nature.

Further complicating these multi-levelled layers is a shadowy parallel legal process operating behind the scenes, where political priorities can sometimes trump the pursuit of justice. Given the control that the ruling families exert over the justice system, the decision to prosecute or not is open to considerable outside influence.

One of the most egregious cases in recent years was the arrest and conviction of a number of British expatriates in Saudi Arabia over a series of bombings in the kingdom. While the authorities claimed the attacks were part of a “turf war” between rival bootleggers, subsequent attacks by al-Qaida against westerners stretched the credulity of the charges to breaking point. Were the Saudi authorities so loath to admit the presence of any internal opposition they sent innocent Britons to prison as scapegoats?

Conversely, outside pressure can sometimes work in favour of the accused, provided one occupies a suitably important perch. Despite Dubai’s much-trumpeted zero-tolerance drug policy – four-year sentences are common for carrying even a scintilla of cannabis – a celebrity music producer from the US charged with cocaine possession received an immediate pardon upon his conviction. Of course “brand Dubai” relied on the power of celebrities to promote its superlative-strewn development model and sending the rich and famous to prison didn’t fit the emirate’s marketing plan. Allowances were made accordingly.

Despite the negative publicity inevitably associated with such cases, it would be unfair to portray the entire region as tightly controlled and legally rigorous. In fact, day-to-day life in many Gulf countries is characterised by a certain playful anarchic insouciance towards state restrictions such as speed limits, planning permission and parking restrictions. However, those planning to visit the region should remember that what is acceptable for some, may not be permissible for all. Guests of the nation would be well-advised to take heed of the Arab proverb ya gharib kun adib: a foreigner should be well-behaved.

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