A British citizen has lived in limbo in the UAE for the last seven years, unable to leave, unable to work. His is one of many stories that should give anyone pause before deciding to work or invest in the Gulf.

“It is easy to be fooled by the glitz and glamour,” chuckles Colin, “but, in the end, the UAE is a place with very strict rules. You need to understand those rules and work within them.” While his sense of humor is remarkably undimmed, his predicament is no laughing matter. 

Seven years ago, while working in the UAE, Colin—whose name has been changed to protect his identity—was arrested on his return to the country from a holiday. His passport was seized, leaving him stranded, unable to leave the country. His crime? Outstanding credit card repayments, totalling around 70,000 Emirati Dirham (just under $20,000). He was told to either pay up or face prosecution. 

Seven years on, during which time Colin has been forbidden from working and therefore unable to repay his bank loans, the charge has increased well over 1,000% and now stands at 1,000,000 Dirham (around $272,000). Most of this insurmountable sum consists of interest and penalty charges. At no point was he contacted by anyone to inform him that a case had been moved against him in the Emirati courts. 

To many, the Gulf states, such as the UAE, have an allure of wealth, an image deliberately cultivated in order to attract expats in search of handsome salaries and a high-end lifestyle. “The UAE has created an image as a new land of extravagant opportunity; an arid desert where the rulers are willing to spend whatever it takes to turn it into an oasis,” says Radha Sterling, Director of Detained in Dubai, an organization that assists people who, like Colin, have fallen victims of the corrupt justice system in the Gulf. 

The legal system in the UAE stacks the odds massively in favor of Emiratis, and the standard of evidence required for legal prosecution often falls well below international norms.

In reality, the legal system in the UAE stacks the odds massively in favor of Emiratis, and the standard of evidence required for legal prosecution often falls well below international norms. While Emiratis make up a fairly small proportion of the UAE population, they wield an immensely disproportionate amount of power. “The Public Prosecutor and the courts take the testimony of locals at face value and require little or no evidential substantiation. If the local happens to hail from a notable family, foreigners barely participate in the legal process,” says SterlIng. 

“We have seen glaring violations in court proceedings,” she continues. “The accused is often not allowed to testify, they cannot call a witness; cannot submit evidence for their defense; frequently they either have no legal representation or else are never allowed to meet their lawyers.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Colin can now see that his naïveté played a role in creating his current predicament. On arriving in Dubai, he found that rent was to be paid either quarterly or annually in advance. Unable to afford a car, he rented the vehicles he drove. Such expenses were impossible to manage on the salary of an independent writer, so he took a number of different credit cards. Colin says this was “the done thing.” He also took a loan from Emirates NBD bank. 

“It is a society based on easy credit for gullible people like me,” he laments. “New expat employees in the gulf are often required to run their payroll through a particular bank. They are then offered a bank account with that bank and the credit card comes with it.” 

If an individual misses three payments, however, his or her case is handed over to a debt collection agency. This agency will be separate from the bank in name, but, in practice, is often overseen by the bank’s senior management. Debt collectors are even known to use bank premises for their activities. They are “unregulated, unrestricted and unprincipled to an extent I have never seen anywhere else in the world,” says Colin. 

There are two ways out of this room. Give us the money, or you’re going in a police car.

When Colin was called to the debt collection agency, he reports that he was taken to a windowless room, where a man around six feet, six inches in height jammed a chair under the door handle. According to Colin, he was then told: “There are two ways out of this room. Give us the money, or you’re going in a police car.” Because this alleged intimidation took place on bank premises, one can only assume the bank’s management is aware of the debt collectors’ modus operandi. The debt collectors also contacted Colin’s wife and parents, with whom they shared his private financial information. His situation is a classic Catch 22:

He waits in limbo, required to pay off his debts but forbidden to do the thing that would allow him to repay them—work.

He waits in limbo, required to pay off his debts but forbidden to do the thing that would allow him to repay them—work.

After seven years, Colin remains remarkably optimistic. He makes clear that he has no disdain for the UAE, which has given him many fond memories. He even talks admiringly of the highest levels of leadership in the country, whom he describes as “highly intelligent.” He has given up hope that the British government will help him through the good offices of its consulate, which he accuses of neglecting the needs of British citizens in favor of the interests of big business. He says he is holding out for an amnesty from the leadership in the UAE, which has been known to grant pardons, particularly during Ramadan. Colin shrugs. “Being resentful doesn’t solve things,” he says. “I am looking for solutions.”

Colin’s mother is currently ill in the UK, as is his mother-in-law, whom he describes as “like a mother to me.” It is his desire to see them again that drives him on. “I believe I will get out of here,” he remarks solemnly, “but if they pass away before that time, it will be a tragedy.” 

When asked about his advice for others who get into trouble in the Gulf, he laughs: “Just get out if you have a passport that works.” 

MbS with Theresa May in London

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This is part of a series of articles that appear on Fridays on the treatment of foreign nationals and others whose human and civil rights are being violated every day in the United Arab Emirates.