Wise counsel: Mandy Smith (middle) informing British parents about UAE laws and what the embassy can and cannot do for them in case of legal trouble, at the British Embassy in Dubai on Monday. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/XPRESS

DUBAI: What would you do if, as the parent of a teenager, you discovered the phone number of a bootlegger on your child's fast-dial list?

21 is the age at which one can consume alcohol legally in Dubai.

That's an issue confronting many parents in Dubai. A group of bootleggers, who go under the pseudonym of the ‘Milkman', have been popping up around the city, notably in areas where Western expats reside.

The Arabian Ranches tops the list as a hotspot for underage drinking. A vigilant father came upon an open-air party there late last year when he drove past the area, curious to see what his son was doing in a park so late on a weekend night. When he tried contacting the parents of the other teenagers present, the majority didn't even bother to answer his call. Calls returned the next day revealed the parents were out that night, sanguine in the false assumption that their children were tucked away safely at home watching TV.

As another parent point outs, the main park in Saheel Village, Arabian Ranches, was the scene of teens on a drunken binge a couple of months back. In November 2010, authorities were called on the scene to break up a fight between drunken teenagers.

Fears about the repercussions of illegal consumption of alcohol by teenagers were revived earlier this week when the British Embassy warned British expatriates about the danger of children buying illegal alcohol from bootleggers and getting drunk in public.

Mandy Smith, Vice Consul of the Assistance Team at the British Embassy in Dubai, warned parents about the presence of a ‘Milkman'. She even questioned the parents of teens whether any of them had heard about this Milkman.

"For those of you who don't know, and have never heard of the Milkman before, this is a message from the CID. The Milkman is basically somebody that is going around selling alcohol illegally [to teenagers]," she explained.

Speaking exclusively to XPRESS, Smith said, "We are aware that some of the children had the Milkmen's number on their cellphone. The Milkmen are effectively breaking the law in two respects: selling alcohol to teenagers and selling alcohol to people without a liquor licence. In terms of ramification, both the sellers and the consumers could be arrested and could possibly get a jail sentence."

On a popular online forum for expat women in the UAE, one member posted the following entry last Wednesday: "There is an Indian man who trolls Mirdif. Some kids have his number programmed into their mobiles as "the Milkman". He meets with the kids [doesn't care what age they are] and sells it out the back of his car. This is one case I have heard of from what I would call reliable sources. [It] breaks my heart, but I believe it happens."

As if that wasn't enough, parents have to contend with the rising instances of solvent abuse, a fad that led to the death of Dubai-based teenager Anton Tahmasian last summer.

An expat mum, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she was horrified to hear that her children were friends with Tahmasian and hung out in similar circles, prior to his untimely death last year. "Teens will be teens," she says.

"They stay locked up in their room for hours on end and I never really questioned it until Anton's death from butane inhalation last year." Alarm bells started ringing when she realised her 17-year-old son was avoiding her on his way in from a friend's house.

The British embassy has confirmed that children in the UAE are indeed involved in varying degrees of substance abuse. In a briefing to British nationals in Dubai, Smith said, "The kids are using solvents and the press is all too aware of the ramifications of solvent abuse."

Smith discussed the case of a 16-year-old boy from London who woke up one morning and instead of cycling to school, got on a plane and flew in to Dubai. "He had no family here, had never been to a Middle East country before, but he'd seen it on the television and it looked like a good place to come to… I went along to speak to him and he looked at me and asked ‘can you tell me what I'm doing here?'… That was because he had been using solvents and that had impaired his mental health."

Smith's warning to parents is clear: The police will treat cases of minors abusing solvents the same way they treat drug cases.

Busy parents

A British mum admits that the "problem arises when parents are too busy to notice what their children are doing, or are too self-involved to realise something is amiss until it hits them in the face, or when they read of a teenager dying from an overdose at a party their own child attended."

When it comes to the legal age for drinking, there is no ambiguity in the law. In Dubai, one has to be 21 years of age to consume alcohol. In Abu Dhabi, the legal age is 18. In both cases, one needs to have a licence to consume alcohol. Make no qualms about it. Underage drinking is a serious offence in the UAE and is punishable by law.

Smith cites the case of a 16-year-old Muslim UK national who was arrested and detained in the UAE for consuming alcohol. "This young chap was sentenced to lashes. We had our London team and our officers here. We tried to speak to every person we possibly could."

Was the boy given the lashes eventually? Absolutely, says Smith. "It was awful. I cannot even begin to explain to you the absolute desperation of the parents."

Another parent spoke to XPRESS about eavesdropping on her teenager's conversation. "That's the first time I heard of the Milkman," she said. The British mum, who lives in the Arabian Ranches, says the Saheel and Alma Parks are areas the Milkman visits. The visits normally occur after sunset, where underage consumption also occurs frequently. "Parents need to realise that when their child says they are hanging out at a park, and it's past midnight, something is wrong. Normal teenagers don't like picnics in the park unless there are ulterior motives involved," she says.

Another mother, an Australian citizen, also confirms the discovery of the Milkman's phone number on her 17-year-old's mobile.

As Smith says, "It's not just British citizens. They [the Milkmen] are targeting Western areas where they know young people live. And basically, what they're doing is selling alcohol illegally to the kids. And again, it's not just our British kids."

Smith gives some hope when she says that the authorities in Dubai are aware of and working on the issue. "The CID has said they are targeting these Milkmen who are selling alcohol illegally." Another concern she voices to parents is about the possibility of these drinks being spiked. "It's what they put in the alcohol which may cause further damage to the kids… Parents need to be very careful and aware [of their children's safety]."

Not one to mince words, Smith admits that she is well aware of the parties that occur in Dubai. "We know [of] the parties that are going on, where the young people are going along to. There, I would argue the point, where are the parents?"

"It's not for us to come and say to you about whether your kids are all right. We know that there are children who have been arrested for drinking alcohol at these parties." Smith's fears are about "the ramification that can occur".

Talking about the ramifications, Smith discusses the case of two British teens that were taken to the Bur Dubai police station. "I cannot even begin to explain to you the depths of despair that these parents went through. One of the fathers was on the floor begging to speak to his child."

Catch-22 situation

Despite their best intentions, parents may end up in a Catch 22 situation. A British father of a 15-year-old says, "As teenagers we all indulged in some behind-the-scenes drinking, so I cannot blame my son for doing the same. However, we live in a country where the rules are very different from back in the UK. Here, we could be arrested, or deported even, for indulging in those activities. With so much forbidden to them, I can understand why teenagers feel the need to rebel. And therein lies the problem. If we give them liberties, we break the law. But if we restrict them, the kids may rebel and break the law anyway."

At an open day coffee morning to discuss the dos and don'ts of expat life in Dubai for British citizens, Guy Warrington, the UK Consul General, said that "as a British national, you are more likely to be arrested in the UAE, statistically and proportionally, than anywhere else in the world, apart from Thailand."

A word of warning

A booklet issued by the British Embassy in Dubai provides a guideline for expat life in the UAE. These include: Only non-Muslims can consume alcohol provided they have an alcohol licence.

The licence does not give immunity for alcohol-related criminal offences. It is an offence to carry alcohol in your car without the licence.

Sex outside of marriage and cohabiting, including in hotels is illegal. If you become pregnant outside of marriage, both you and your partner could be imprisoned.

The UAE has a zerotolerance policy towards drinking and driving. You can be charged and imprisoned if you are caught with any alcohol in your system.

Here's what your embassy can and cannot do for you:

Can

  • Issue emergency travel documents
  • Provide information about fund transfers, local lawyers, interpreters and doctors
  • Contact you within 24 hours of being informed that you have been detained by local authorities.
  • Contact family or friends for you

Cannot

  • Give you money or pay any bills on your behalf
  • Give you legal advice, investigate crimes or carry out searches for missing people
  • Make travel arrangements or find you work or accommodation
  • Get you out of prison, prevent local authorities from deporting you or interfere in criminal or civil court proceedings
  • Help you enter/re-enter the UAE without a valid visa/passport
  • Pay for your health care, accommodation or travel costs
  • Get you better treatment in hospital or prison than is given to the local population
  • Make business arrangements on your behalf