DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Scottish electrician named Jamie Harron, visiting Dubai as a tourist, was sentenced to three months in jail for touching a man in a bar.
The British head of a professional soccer team, David Haigh, was ordered jailed for seven months for a tweet that he says could not have been from him — since he was already in jail without a phone.
An Australian aid worker living in Dubai, Scott Richards, was locked up for trying to raise money to buy blankets for freezing Afghan children, because he was not part of a recognized charity.
Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, portrays itself as welcoming to foreigners. Its boosters claim it is the fourth most-visited tourism destination in the world, and it has at least 12 times as many foreign residents as citizens.
But a legal system based on a hard-line interpretation of Shariah law often lands foreigners in jail for offenses that few Westerners would dream were even crimes.
Recent examples cited by lawyers include holding hands in public; posting praise on Facebook for a charity opposed to fox hunting; drinking alcohol without a license; and sharing a hotel room with a person of the opposite sex (other than one’s spouse).
Mostly, the Dubai authorities look the other way when it comes to such behavior by foreigners — until they don’t. Hotels do not ask couples for their marriage licenses. Dubai has a lively night life, with numerous gay bars and nightclubs where East European prostitutes openly solicit customers.
Yet cohabitation is a crime, homosexuality is subject to the death penalty (though it is rarely imposed) and prostitution can be punished with lashes and even worse.
Even victims of violent crimes can be accused of morality offenses: Gay people who report assaults have been jailed along with their attackers, and women who report being raped can be imprisoned for adultery if they do not have four male witnesses to support their story.
Radha Stirling, a British lawyer, says she has represented hundreds of Westerners who have been jailed in Dubai for behavior that is usually permitted there.
“You go there and its facade is that all of this is legal, everyone is doing it, you think it’s O.K.,” said Ms. Stirling, who runs a British-based group, Detained in Dubai, that publicizes such cases. “But you offend someone and you’re the one who gets it.”
Two recent cases, both handled by Ms. Stirling, have aroused widespread ire in Britain, which has more nationals living in Dubai than any other Western country.
Mr. Harron, 27, the Scottish electrician visiting Dubai, was arrested and sentenced to three months in jail for public indecency for allegedly touching a man’s hip as he brushed past him in a crowded bar. And a British man from Leicester, Jamil Ahmed Mukadam, 23, is facing trial for giving the middle finger to a Dubai driver who he said was tailgating him.
Mr. Mukadam, a computer consultant, had been in a rental car, so it took the police a while to trace him. But six months later, in September, he was arrested at the airport upon returning to Dubai. He is now free on bail, without his passport, awaiting trial.
He could face six months in jail if convicted of making the “obscene gesture.” Mr. Mukadam said he had often visited Dubai with his wife and that he liked the city, particularly its variety of halal food, but does not plan to return.
“No chance I’m coming back here again,” he said. “I wouldn’t set foot here again, not the way I’ve been treated.”
Emiratis are mostly unapologetic about their country’s contradictions.
“Westerners’ culture differs from Arab culture,” Judge Ahmad Saif, head of the Dubai civil court, said in a recent interview with The National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi. “In their countries, flashing your middle finger or insulting another is not acceptable but it is not punishable by the law. The culture for people living in the U.A.E. is much different. At the end of the day, we are Muslims and committing such acts is not acceptable.”
Most cases that ensnare unwary foreigners involve morality offenses. It is against the law to drink without a license, for instance, but foreigners can only get one if they are residents. So any tourist who is drinking is doing so illegally, even in a licensed bar. Couples cannot share a room together if they are not married, even in their homes.
When Emlyn Culverwell, a 29-year-old South African, took his fiancée, Iryna Nohal, a Ukrainian, to a doctor in Dubai, complaining of stomach pain, the diagnosis was pregnancy — and the treatment was a phone call to the police. The couple were arrested and jailed when they could not produce a marriage license.
Some Emiratis acknowledge that their laws have not kept pace with a rapidly changing society.
“It is unreasonable to expect a country to warn each and every visitor about its complete set of rules and regulations in place,” Essam Tamimi, a Dubai lawyer, said in an email. “In a short period of time, Dubai has greatly developed and has become one of the world’s most diverse melting pots. That being said, laws in general are made to accommodate the society’s needs and the U.A.E., like most other countries, still has some changes to make.”
Dubai officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Critics complain that the Emirates’ legal system is stacked against foreigners, and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the country of arbitrary detention and abuse of prisoners.
Mr. Haigh, a former managing director of Leeds United Football Club and a partner in Ms. Stirling’s law firm, said he was jailed for 22 months and tortured repeatedly in an attempt to force him to sign a confession, but never managed to see a copy of the charges to which he was supposed to confess.
Mr. Haigh had gotten into a business dispute with a Dubai bank, GFH Capital, that owned a stake in the team. He said he was tricked into coming to Dubai to resolve their differences, then jailed on arrival for breach of trust and held for several months without being allowed to see a lawyer.
While in jail, he was charged with posting an offensive Twitter message, though he says he had no phone or internet access. For that, his sentence was increased by seven months. He was eventually acquitted of the Twitter charge, but not until he had served another seven months on top of his original 15 month sentence.
“Ninety percent of the population are breaking the law 90 percent of the time and no one does anything against them until they upset the wrong person and they get arrested,” Mr. Haigh said of Dubai.
In recent years, the United Arab Emirates has cracked down on social media, making it a crime to criticize the country, its citizens or businesses on Facebook or Twitter. The law has mainly been used to punish domestic critics, but it also swept up Ryan Pate, a helicopter mechanic from Florida, who was jailed after he unleashed a Facebook rant over a sick leave dispute with his employer, Global Aerospace Logistics, a U.A.E. company.
Foreign residents and tourists encounter similar problems throughout the Emirates — Mr. Pate’s company was based in Abu Dhabi — but they are more common in Dubai because more Westerners live and visit there.
Other offenses that few foreigners realize can lead to jail time include passing a bad check, even accidentally; failing to pay a credit-card bill on time; taking a photograph of someone without his or her permission; and touching someone.
That was the accusation against Mr. Harron: that he had touched a man intimately in a public place, the Rock Bottom Cafe, a club frequented by gay men. He says he was just pushing through a crowd and put a hand on the man’s hip to avoid spilling his drink.
He was sentenced to three months in jail, although he was allowed to leave the country after the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, nullified the court’s ruling. Heavy publicity has often helped resolve such cases, even when legally they looked hopeless.
“The U.A.E. government is just a huge public relations entity,” Ms. Stirling said. “If they think a case is going to harm them, the government will speak to the police and get the charges dropped.”