Back in August, we reported on the case of Dr Ellie Holman – a dual Swedish/Iranian dentist living in London with her British husband and young children. Dr Holman was arrested after arriving in Dubai on an Emirates flight and her case made headlines around the world over concerns about the way she and her 4-year old daughter were treated by authorities.
The case was taken on by a non-governmental organisation, Detained in Dubai which is a UK-based charity that helps foreigners who have been arrested in the United Arab Emirates. One of the most eye-catching parts of Dr Holman’s case was that she said she was arrested because she had drunk a glass of wine on her Emirates flight to the country.
“The UAE maintains a deliberately misleading facade that alcohol consumption is perfectly legal for visitors. This is exampled by Emirates Airlines serving alcohol in flight, by bars at the airport, by hotels, restaurants and clubs serving drinks,” Detained in Dubai’s Radha Stirling said at the time.
“Tourists cannot be blamed for believing that the Emirates are tolerant of Western drinking habits but this is far from reality.”
So could you really be arrested for drinking alcohol that an airline that will gladly serve it for free?
Well, it’s got to be said that Dr Holman’s case was more complicated than simply drinking a glass of wine. Her problems started when an immigration officer noticed her Swedish passport was out of date and suggested she and her daughter may have to be repatriated home. It’s alleged Dr Holman then became annoyed and argued with the immigration officer.
Only making matters worse, Dr Holman then used to mobile phone to film her interaction with the officer – a definite no, no in the UAE which she should have known was illegal. After being thrown into jail and then released on bail, Dr Holman’s case was quickly dropped by authorities on the back of negative publicity.
Many observers, however, remained incredulous at the thought it could be illegal to drink on an Emirates flight. After all, the airline serves Dom Perignon in First Class, while passengers in Business Class can enjoy Moet and Veuve Cliquot champagne. Emirates has invested millions of dollars in a fine wine collection while passengers in all classes can enjoy beers and hard liquor for free.
But Detained in Dubai and Dr Holman remain adamant that the immigration officer used her alcohol consumption as the initial reason for detention – telling the dentist that it’s was illegal to consume alcohol or even have it within your blood system.
The truth is that alcohol consumption in the UAE is a legal grey area with law enforcement often turning a blind eye to both tourists and expats living in the country. But now the UK Foreign Office has waded into the debate with a post on their official Facebook page for the British embassy in the UAE.
In a post which was published yesterday, the UK government states:
“If caught carrying or drinking alcohol without a licence or with alcohol in your blood you can be arrested. It is a punishable offence to be under the influence of alcohol in public-including when transiting through the UAE. It can result in a custodial sentences &/or fine.”
The post looks to be mainly aimed at expats who live and work in Dubai but Detained in Dubai has drawn some conclusions from the post…
“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,” the charity says.
“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 charity says Emirates is breaching its duty of care to passengers and claims the airline could even be sued for failing to tell people about the UAE’s strict alcohol laws.
Let’s be honest, the vast majority of tourists, expats and Emirates passengers are never going to experience a problem with Dubai’s alcohol rules. Most Emirates customers will enjoy the airline’s famous hospitality and have a fantastic experience, despite the fact that Detained in Dubai says Dr Holman’s case is far from unique.
Dubai has managed to successfully build its tourism economy while walking a tightrope between Western norms and local values and traditions. It’s unlikely that this case will bring about a big change in the law but tourists should be aware of local customs before travelling to the country.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.