Picture is for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: When an airline introduced a bar behaviour awareness programme for its cabin crew, hardly any eyebrows were raised. Also going largely unnoticed were online accounts of expatriates who ended up victims of wild party scenes in nightclubs.

But when the British Embassy in the UAE issued an advisory in June to its citizens warning about a tiny date rape pill being used to spike drinks of victims at hotspots and nightclubs across the city, it finally drove home the seriousness of this problem.

This little odourless and tasteless white pill can induce hypnotic and amnesiac effects on its victims, take away all rationality and leave them with memory loss.

The embassy's public warning was the first from an official agency, openly talking about a new danger lurking in UAE bars. It was talking about Rohypnol, a date rape drug that has made its way into the UAE's party scene.

It's a two-edged sword for the victims. As traumatic as sexual assault may be, the consequences of reporting the crime in a country where you can just as easily be convicted as the criminal, are just as intimidating. Victims, both women and men, are often forced to hold their silence for fear of being charged with illegal consumption of alcohol or consensual sex.

Take the case of Eve.

At 21, Eve was living the life of her dreams. A successful model and choreographer, her career was kicking off. "I worked manic hours all day, posing and pouting in front of a camera and partied hard late into the night. Surrounded by the best-looking people in town, all falling over themselves to buy me a drink and party with me, life couldn't have been better.

"But one such night changed my life forever. I was at a bar in February, following an exhausting photoshoot. So accustomed to not caring where my next drink came from, I happily took a large sip from a drink handed over to me by a guy who looked vaguely familiar. I'd seen him at a few parties and recall him trying to strike up a conversation with me. But he wasn't my type and I didn't really care to spend more than two minutes exchanging pleasantries. Unfortunately, that's the last thing I remember, him smiling at me, when all of a sudden everything went dark. The next thing I knew I was curled up in my bed at home, and it was well into the day. Sore and with a massive migraine, I tried piecing together the events of the previous night.

Mind went blank

"Nothing. My mind was blank. The man's smiling face was my last memory. Trying to move was impossible. A searing pain in my private regions made movement impossible. Eventually, things started making sense. Acquaintances confirmed they saw me leave the club with this guy shortly after finishing my drink, which he must have spiked with Rohypnol. My ability to rationalise had been compromised. I don't know where he took me, but I am sure I was raped."

Rohypnol, or flunitrazepam, is used to induce sedation, muscle relaxation, reduction in anxiety and prevention of convulsions. Rohypnol's sedative effects are approximately seven to 10 times stronger than Valium, a widely used sedative. The effects of Rohypnol appear 15 to 20 minutes after administration and last approximately four to six hours.

The pill is known to cause partial amnesia and is particularly dangerous when used to aid sexual assault. Victims may not be able to clearly recall the assault, the assailant, or the events surrounding the assault. If Rohypnol exposure is to be detected at all, urine samples need to be collected within 72 hours and subjected to sensitive analytical tests. The problem is compounded by the onset of amnesia after ingestion of the drug, which causes the victim to be uncertain about the facts surrounding the rape. This uncertainty may lead to critical delays or even reluctance to report the rape and to provide appropriate biological samples for toxicology testing.

Eve's case is not an isolated one. The so-called date rape cases are growing at an alarming rate in the UAE, alarming enough for the British embassy to alert British visitors and residents in the UAE. Around one million British visitors come for holidaying each year and around 100,000 live in the UAE. A recent announcement on its website reads: "Each year, our consular staff in the UAE help a number of British nationals who were the victim of a serious sexual offence. Personal attacks, including sexual assaults and rape, are rare but do happen.

"Drink spiking, known to be used in date rape, can also happen. Consular staff has noted an increase of drink spiking in nightclubs in the UAE, resulting in sexual assaults on both men and women. Do not accept drinks from strangers or leave drinks unattended, including non-alcoholic drinks. When in pubs and clubs, stay with your friends and avoid getting separated in the crowd. Do not leave with a stranger."

Long before the embassy's warnings, an airline had already incorporated awareness campaigns for its thousands of young cabin crew about the dangers of date rape in the UAE. In an interview to XPRESS, a former cabin crew says all staff are warned to keep an eye on their drink. "At most of our briefings, we were reminded about the possibility of date rape. Apparently, cabin crew are easy targets. I've had ex-colleagues talking about being date-raped on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes, the drug is given not just for sexual purposes, but also in cases of theft. When cabin crew are staying in a hotel, there's a strong chance they are carrying a decent amount of cash and jewellery on them. As crew we were constantly reminded never to leave our drinks unattended at the bar, never to accept a drink from a stranger, never to leave our room keys in view of another, to carry our room cards discreetly, so no one can read our room number… More recently, the airline's head office started selling coasters to detect the spiking of our drinks," the Belgian national told XPRESS.

"Each coaster comes with two test areas. All one needs to do is put one drop from the glass onto their coaster, to see if the drink tests positive or negative for any of the date rape drugs, including Rohypnol.

When XPRESS contacted the airline for details, they declined to comment on the issue.

Online forums have many stories of women who've had their drinks spiked at the majority of UAE's top bars.

One woman even says she succumbed to date rape after accepting a bottle of water from a taxi driver. Another talks of barmen who are tipped off by clients, who have their eye on a woman, and pay the barman to spike her drink.

Late last year, a woman was jailed for eight months in Fujairah for claiming three men raped her after her drink was spiked in a hotel bar.

The woman, identified as Alicia Gali, said she ordered one drink from the bar in the hotel where she was working, but then remembered nothing until waking up the next afternoon. Gali was arrested after reporting her rape to police and later sentenced to 11 months' jail for having illicit sexual relations in addition to one month for consumption of alcohol.

Like Alicia, an unspecified number of women have been victims of date rape.

Louise, a cabin crew member from Scotland, told XPRESS she bumped into two Arab men at a pub last Christmas. "We were laughing and joking like old friends within an hour of meeting one another. They appeared so kind and friendly that I didn't think twice before asking one of the guys to buy me a drink from the bar while I was on the dance floor. Despite all the repetitive warnings we get at work, and the date rape posters put up in our staff clinics, I fell victim to their scam. The next thing I remember it was early the next morning and I was all alone in the desert, with no handbag, mobile phone, cash, credit or identity.

"To this day, I'll never know if I was raped or not, but I lost a very expensive designer handbag, at least Dh2,000 in cash, as well as all the jewellery I was wearing, which was quite a lot."

Upon gaining consciousness, Louise had to walk through the desert, hoping to find a road and catch a lift.

Police statement

Lt Col Jamal Salem Al Jallaf, Deputy Director of Control Section at the Criminal Investigation Department at Dubai Police, said "There have not been any cases of date rape in Dubai to my knowledge.

"Over the last few years we haven't received any complaints from victims who claim to have been date-raped after having consumed the date rape drug.

"Rape is not tolerated in our society. The number of reported rapes in Dubai is significantly low in comparison to other countries."

WHAT IS ROHYPNOL? 

Rohypnol, the trade name for the drug flunitrazepam, is a central nervous system depressant. Often called Roofies, Ruffles or Roaches, the drug comes in the form of a small, circular white pill, which when diluted in a drink is colourless, odourless and tasteless. However, within 15 to 20 minutes of consumption, the victim loses all sense of rationality and memory of the events that occur while under the influence. 

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM DATE RAPE

  • Never allow a stranger to buy you a drink
  • Keep your drink in your hand at all times, or hand over your drink if sitting at a bar.
  • Don't assume that because you're drinking a non-alcoholic beverage you are safe. An assaulter could slip the pill into a bottle of water just as easily as into an alcoholic beverage
  • Work the buddy system when out at a bar. Have a friend keep an eye on you, and vice-versa, when meeting new people at bars.
  • Never leave your drink unattended, even if you must carry it to the washroom .
  • Don't drink from punch bowls or common containers. They may have already been spiked.
  • Once you lose sight of your drink, if even for a moment, do not consume it any more.