Broadly Drafted UAE Cybercrimes Law May Put British National Behind Bars

Dubai International Airport, a major airline hub in the Middle East.

Don’t drink, kiss or curse in public, dress appropriately… Most people who visit or live in the UAE know the drill. However, some laws are so broadly drafted that they can land you in hot water without you realizing. As is the case with the UAE’s Cybercrimes Law. A British 31-year-old woman has been detained for using a swear word on WhatsApp. She faces 2 years imprisonment and a hefty fine.

Broadly Drafted Cybercrimes Law

Cyber safety and online security are serious issues in the UAE. The first comprehensive set of laws and resolutions to combat cybercrime were introduced in 2012. Legislators addressed a number of computer and online related crimes and decided how cybercrimes would be dealt with.

In light of rapidly changing cyberthreats, a 2016 amendment criminalized the use of the internet for invading the privacy of another person, secretly recording of audio or video conversations, the unauthorized creating, publishing or transferring of photos, publishing unlawful comments, news, statements, etc. Further changes introduced even harsher sanctions, heftier fines and longer prison sentences.

This means that, under the UAE’s Cybercrimes Law, people, including visitors and foreign nationals, can easily and lawfully be arrested, detained and prosecuted over a swear word or a rude text because it “disgraces someone’s honor or modesty”. Even when sent in the heat of the moment. Moreover, legal proceedings can be lengthy, with language barriers and cultural differences adding to the complexity of the issue.

British Woman Detained While Boarding

Last week, Emirati police apprehended a 31-year-old woman while she was boarding a flight to London’s Heathrow Airport. The woman, originally from Gloucester in the UK, had been living in the UAE since 2018. She was returning home to start a new job and had already sent all her belongings back home. Her visa is due to expire in mid-February.

Unfortunately, shortly before leaving, it turned out that her former flat mate reported her to the police for using the f-word on WhatsApp. The two women allegedly had a spat about the use of their dining room table as a workplace during the Covid-19 lockdown.

After being transferred from police station to police station, the woman from Gloucester was finally released on bail after she admitted to sending the offensive message to her Ukrainian flat mate last October. The police kept her phone for “forensic analysis”, confiscated her passport and told her not to leave the country. A court date is still to be set.

Imprisonment and A Hefty Fine

If convicted, the British woman faces up to two years imprisonment plus a fine of up to 500,000 AED (approx. $140,000). She tried to settle things with her ex-flat mate, but apparently her requests were ignored. The organization Detained in Dubai will be representing the woman and issued a statement explaining some details of the case.

The woman is not the first foreign national to be arrested in Dubai over comments made on social media. Last year, a British woman was accused by the new wife of her ex-husband for calling her “a horse” on Facebook in 2016. She too faced jailtime and a huge fine. In the end, the case was settled for 3,000 AED and the woman was allowed to fly home.

According to Detained in Dubai, the British Consulate in Dubai promised that they would “encourage authorities to move quicker”, but also emphasized that they have little influence in this matter.

Other Seemingly Innocent Acts that Could Put You in Jail

Using the f-word on WhatsApp or Facebook is not the only “indecent act” that could get you arrested, fined or deported from Dubai or another UAE country. Here are some other seemingly innocent acts that could put you in jail:

  • Checking someone’s phone. Using devices or social media to “invade the privacy of another person” is illegal in the UAE. The minimum jail term if convicted is 6 months, plus a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 AED.
  • Using a VPN. People caught using a VPN “for the purpose of committing a crime or for preventing discovery” face a fine of between 500,000 and 2,000,000 AED. This includes trying to access a blocked website or downloading copyrighted material.
  • Gossiping on social media. Spreading false rumors about something or someone is also forbidden. It can result in a prison sentence of up to 3 years and a fine of up to 1,000,000 AED.
  • Taking photos or videos of people without consent. Posting photos online without consent is even worse. This act can cost the offender up to 500,000 AED and a 6-month jail sentence. Various visitors have also been deported for this.
  • Taking and sharing photos of accidents. Again, posting these images online and on social media makes things worse and, in some cases, is considered to be “a serious offence”. In that case, the price tag can run up to 1,000,000 AED. Even life imprisonment can be on the table, depending on the nature and severity of the accident.
IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.