Dubai A spate of recent alcohol-related arrests across the emirates has underlined the dangers of drinking without a licence and crossing the line, not just in homes, restaurants and bars, but also on-board an aircraft.

Last month, news of a British engineer being jailed in Dubai for three months hit the headlines after the 40-year-old was found guilty of groping an air stewardess during an Emirates’ flight from Bangkok to Dubai. He was also charged with breaching UAE laws as he had downed vodka without a licence. The court ruled that he should have obtained a permit before consuming alcohol as the plane was registered in Dubai.

In April, an American drummer of a popular heavy metal band was sentenced to a month in jail for allegedly lifting his middle finger at some passengers at Dubai airport. The man, 51, is alleged to have had five glasses of wine on a Moscow flight of a GCC-based airline and was in transit in Dubai en route Bahrain. Besides being accused of insulting Islam, he was also fined Dh2,000 for drinking without a licence.

Incidents such as these have raised questions about onboard drinking and what constitutes an offence on flights plying to and from the UAE.

To a query by XPRESS, Attorney General Essam Al Humaidan, head of public prosecution, Dubai Courts, said: “Drinking as a charge is slapped on a person if he is accused of any misconduct while being intoxicated. The UAE’s legal system mandates that we address the nature of any crime. In the case of the British man, he was accused of groping the stewardess and as he was under the influence at the time, we were required to address his intoxication as well.”

Al Humaidan said anyone accused of committing a crime under the influence within the UAE’s jurisdiction, be it aerial, maritime or land, is subject to the laws of the country. The drinking charge is usually supplementary.

An Emirates spokesperson said: “Many countries have laws prohibiting offensive behaviour on-board aircraft and regularly prosecute unruly and disruptive passengers for such incidents. The international community is also currently taking steps to update the Tokyo Convention regarding disruptive passengers, due to concerns of many governments about escalation of the severity and frequency of unruly behaviour on-board aircraft.”

A flydubai spokesperson said: “Every flydubai passenger accepts our Conditions of Carriage aligned to international standards before they complete their booking. A key component of our Conditions of Carriage outlines acceptable passenger behaviour, both on the ground and on-board our aircraft.”

The airline’s conditions on alcohol state: “You are not allowed to consume alcohol aboard an aircraft (whether purchased as duty free from us or someone else or otherwise obtained) unless it has been served to you by us. We have the right, at any time for any reason, to refuse to serve alcohol or to withdraw alcohol which has been served.”

According to IATA’s ‘Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management’, consuming alcohol resulting in intoxication is an offence under Section 2 which deals with assault and other acts endangering safety or jeopardising good order and discipline on a civil aircraft.

International air laws give states complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above their territory with the state’s regulations regarding the admission and departure of passengers, crew or cargo from aircraft being complied with on arrival, departure and whilst within its territory. International protocols also dictate that jurisdiction over on-board offences lies with the state where the aircraft is registered.

In the case of the UAE, where only non-Muslims aged above 21 can buy alcohol, a special licence is required. This applies to both residents and visitors.

Advocate Khalid A. Wahab of Al Midfa & Associates said: “Dubai has a special law on alcohol with 11 articles issued in 1972. Someone who has consumed alcohol in a permitted area can be arrested outside of that area if he is found to be drunk and disorderly. The law applies even if the person holds a valid ‘purchasing’ alcohol licence.

While an alcohol licence enables you to purchase alcohol, it does not allow you to drink it in public places or get drunk.”

He said under the UAE Penal Code of 1987, alcohol drinkers can be sentenced to between one and six months in jail and may face a fine of not more than Dh5,000. Deportation could also be an option depending on the seriousness of the crime.

In addition, Musthafa Zafeer O.V, managing partner at Musthafa and Almana International Lawyers and Consultants, said: “Article 2.2 of the UAE’s Code of Conduct stipulates that alcohol consumption should be confined to designated areas like licenced restaurants etc. Article 2.4 says alcohol can be bought from specialised stores only by non-Muslims holding a liquor licence and Article 2.3 underlines the zero-tolerance for driving under the influence. Not knowing the law is no excuse. There is no escape if one gets into trouble.”

Recurring incidents show that passengers are learning this the hard way. Reports of drunken misbehaviour on flights to and from the UAE are common enough:

On June 12, a Dubai-Karachi flight had to abort its take off as it restrained a drunken passenger and handed him over to the authorities; in April, the Dubai Courts heard a case where an Arab passenger allegedly damaged police property when officers tried to arrest him. He was allegedly drunk and had assaulted other passengers on a flight. In December, a drunken transit passenger at Dubai Airport was reportedly jailed for making a fake bomb threat. The Misdemeanours Court sentenced him to one month in jail for the bomb threat and fined him Dh2,000 for drinking without a licence.

Wahab said he deals with several alcohol-related cases. “Recently a non-Muslim tourist couple was arrested at the Dubai airport due to indecent behaviour after consuming alcohol. They were taken to jail where they stayed for a day. Subsequently, they were asked to lodge Dh2,000 each as guarantee and their passports were released so they could exit the country. After about 10 days, a judgement was issued in absence and the pair was fined Dh1,200 each.”

Such cases apart, there are other incidents where residents and tourists have ended up in jail after a drink. A 24-year-old flight attendant visiting a night club on Shaikh Zayed Road last August was charged with theft and drinking without a licence after she went home with someone else’s phone. She denied stealing the phone but confessed to the alcohol charge. The Dubai Court of Misdemeanours gave her a suspended three-month jail term for theft and fined her Dh2,000 for drinking.

Drinking at home

The law can get the better of you even at your own home.

Last Christmas, two Filipinos in Abu Dhabi were sentenced to three months in jail after they were found drinking alcohol without a licence. They were having a party at their home with friends when a neighbour complained to the police about the noise.

Zafeer said another Indian couple in Dubai, who were preparing for a weekend birthday party ended up in jail instead after police arrested them outside their apartment with boxes of liquor they had bought without a licence from Ajman.

“It is not uncommon to find expats drinking quite freely on flights, at homes, restaurants and other social events. But they give little thought to the ramifications of violating the law.

“Party hosts should also be aware of the dangers of serving alcohol to those without permits. Both the host and guest are liable when something goes wrong. It is worth noting that serving alcohol in front of minors is also an offence,” he added.

­-Inputs from Razmig Bedirian