French national Reda Boulahdid stands falsely accused of fraud in the UAE. He is but the latest victim of a state that increasingly attacks the rights of non-UAE-nationals with impunity.
From its glamorous public relations campaigns, one could be forgiven for thinking the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a dynamic, modern paradise. Along with its fellow gulf states, the UAE boasts enormous wealth and investment opportunities that create seemingly limitless growth, enriching the country’s rulers and attracting tourists from around the world.
The Dubai Expo 2020 alone, for instance, represents hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts. “Potential investors are encouraged, seduced even, by headlines like these; and that is the intention,” says Radha Sterling, director of Detained in Dubai (DiD). However, she says: “After over a decade running DiD, I read such stories as ‘too-good-to-be-true’ enticements that have led far too many businesspeople into personal and financial ruin.”
Detained in Dubai is an organization that supports Western expats in the UAE and the wider Gulf who have been victimized by the region’s murky and corrupt legal systems. Over 80% of their work deals with financial disputes.
The UAE has painted itself as a land of extravagant opportunity, says Radha: “An arid desert where the rulers are willing to spend whatever it takes to turn it into an oasis.” However, “with an increasing focus on diversifying the economy beyond a dependency on oil revenues, investment projects abound in every sector; incidences of fraud, breach of trust, embezzlement, extortion, and fabricated criminal cases against foreigners have increased rapidly in recent years.”
Doing business in the country has the appearance of being easier than in many places in the world. However, as in many aspects of society in the Gulf, this friendly, welcoming visage hides a darker truth.
The UAE has taken several measures to ensure that it appears an attractive place to invest. It has set up Economic Free Zones, the rules of which are designed to attract foreign investment. As a result, doing business in the country has the appearance of being easier than in many places in the world. However, as in many aspects of society in the Gulf, this friendly, welcoming visage hides a darker truth.
Today in the UAE, it is commonplace for foreign businesses and individuals to have their assets stolen, to be incarcerated on false charges, and to have their personal and professional lives ruined because of a disagreement with powerful Emiratis.
Reda Boulahdid, a French national currently detained in the eastern Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), is a typical victim of such gangster tactics.
In November, 2016, Reda was running a successful business selling spare parts for vehicles and machinery, when he was interrogated by RAK customs agents, who demanded 20% of his profits. When he refused, false charges of commercial fraud were brought against him. He was variously accused of stealing, smuggling, and producing counterfeit products. His warehouse was raided by the CID (secret police), as was his home.
During the raid, on November 13, 2016, at which Reda was not present, his wife was assaulted and detained for several hours.
Like so many in the UAE, Reda is both unable to leave the country and unable to work.
His warehouse and factory remain closed to this day, although some of his assets were returned to him almost 2 years later in September 2018, when a judge found no wrongdoing in relation to them. Reda expects that the state will sell many of his assets. He is still fighting several cases in court, but he knows that he could be imprisoned at any time. Like so many in the UAE, Reda is both unable to leave the country and unable to work.
Despite the fact that Reda has proved his claims of bribe solicitation against the customs officials, his accusers, one of whom was the chief customs officer in the Free Zone, were able to evade the accusation. They claimed that Reda is a dangerous criminal and that the bribe request was made to entrap him. This ought to have resulted in the charges against Reda being dropped, as entrapment is illegal in the gulf state. Nevertheless, a report alleging Reda’s guilt was then compiled by the very customs agents who were his accusers. Naturally, his lawyer argued that this was unjust and requested that a new investigation be carried out by independent parties.
In January 2018, the judge granted the requested investigation, but, incredibly, he was subsequently recused and replaced with a new judge, who refused the request. The customs officials’ report contains several, provable inconsistencies, but these have not been examined by the court, due to a further refusal to allow experts to examine the finished version.
After over two years in essential purgatory, during which he has been forbidden from working, Reda’s income has dried up. He is not even permitted to receive mail. His wife, who earns a modest salary, is now the sole breadwinner in the family. In addition to his criminal charges, Reda’s predicament means that he has been unable to repay loans he took out to fund his business, opening him up to new criminal charges under UAE law.
He was originally required to pay 1.5 million Emirati dirham ($408,400), with no possibility of appeal. This was reduced to 500,000 dirham ($140,000) on January 21 this year. Like many expats in the Gulf state, these ongoing cases mean Reda is unable to leave the UAE. He has served four days in jail, despite being sentenced to two years in January of last year. He faces an additional three counts and could still be jailed for up to five years.
The French consulate doesn’t want to help,” he says. “They just say ‘this is a sovereign country;’ they can do whatever they want. I just want to leave. I have lost everything . . . . I just want to get away from here.
Reda says he is resigned to the loss of his professional life and now seeks only the chance to restart his personal life. “The French consulate doesn’t want to help,” he says. “They just say ‘this is a sovereign country;’ they can do whatever they want. I just want to leave. I have lost everything . . . . I just want to get away from here.”
Sadly, there is no guarantee Reda will ever escape this limbo. He implores others to take heed of his warning: “People have to be very careful investing here,” he told Inside Arabia. “I never believed they could make such huge accusations with just their word being enough. It’s very, very dangerous.”