“The World Cup in Doha has the potential of being the Black Friday of wrongful detentions,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and Due Process International, “Because of the overflow of game attendees into the UAE; visitors will be subject to the brutish police forces and regressive laws of two of the most corrupt and capricious countries in the Gulf. Huge sports events can be chaotic, tense, and boisterous in the best of circumstances, and in most of the countries that have hosted the World Cup, police and the public are prepared for that – this is not the case in Qatar or the UAE.”
Stirling has been campaigning against wrongful arrests and unjust convictions across the Gulf States for nearly a decade and a half, and is acutely aware of how easily travellers can inadvertently run afoul of the law. “In places like Doha and Dubai, there is an impression of Westernisation, tolerance, and sophistication, but this is largely a façade. These are deeply conservative and authoritarian countries, with Third World legal systems where the police are often illiterate and antagonistic to foreigners; torture in custody is routine; and trials are a farce. Arrests are a prelude to certain conviction, and the slightest misunderstanding or perceived disrespect can very quickly land Westerners in jail.”
Between Stirling’s twin organisations, she handles thousands of cases per year, but anticipates the unprecedented deluge of tourists during the World Cup to result in a corresponding surge in pleas for assistance. “Roughly 600,000 people visit the UAE and Qatar every month in an average year; that number is expected to be more than doubled this November and December as over 1.5 million people descend on Doha to watch the championship. We are likely to see more cases of abusive arrests in just those two months than we normally see in half a year. Average tourists come to these countries unprepared for the risks and unaware of the dangers, and football fans are even less likely to take these things into consideration.
“Issues like drinking alcohol are deliberately unclear in both Qatar and the UAE, as there is no stated legal limit for blood alcohol levels in either country, leaving anyone vulnerable to arrest for intoxication even if they have followed the law. Rude gestures, and even off-colour social media posts or WhatsApp messages can lead to prosecution. Public displays of affection can result in arrest, as well as simply taking snapshots in which passers-by appear without their permission. There is a reason why Western tourists are more likely to be arrested in the Gulf than anywhere else in the world; and celebrating or disappointed football fans preoccupied with the World Cup, are going to be especially ill-equipped to navigate the minefield of Qatari and Emirati dos and don’ts.”
Stirling cautions that Qatar has been particularly recalcitrant about foreigners in custody, “The UAE is more responsive to consular involvement and to negative media coverage over false arrests,” She explains, “Dubai is highly conscious of their global image as a tourist destination; Qatar, however, has never positioned itself as a tourism hub; they are far less concerned with negative press or political pressure. They endured three and a half years of isolation by their neighbours during the Saudi-led boycott, and feel both triumphant and defiant right now. The fact that they won the bid to host the World Cup has only made them more intransigent. Resolving wrongful detention cases in Qatar is a much more involved and difficult process. In all honesty, we are tremendously concerned about the well-being and safety of everyone attending the event this year.
“Police and prosecutors in the Gulf treat foreigners like footballs; fabricated and trumped-up charges, forced confessions and convictions, score them promotions and career advancement. You may be going to Doha to watch the matches and cheer for your favourite team, but find yourself competing with a corrupt system just to win back your freedom and clear your name.”