Expat Life UAE
To All Expats in the UAE, Enjoy Your Life There While You Have It Good, It Could Unwittingly Take a Wrong Turn
Today, I'd like to share a long essay written by my husband. October 17. This date has become a significant one for us. It marks the first day of a nightmarish episode in our lives. I am finally going to publish his story after long contemplation and hesitation on its repercussions. It's going to be a long read so please feel free to grab a cup of coffee and read on...
It’s been exactly one year since that day when our life in the UAE took a wrong turn.
It’s been exactly one year since that day when our life in the UAE took a wrong turn.
My wife and I had been happily living in the UAE together for 11 years. Just like every couple, we had good and bad times but overall our life in the UAE was good. We enjoyed the place and what it brought us. We started at the bottom of the ladder, sharing a small one-bedroom apartment in the basement of a building’s car park with no windows to the outside and infested with cockroaches to a nice two-bedroom apartment/villa in a nice landscaped and gated community. Just like most people, we would enjoy going out during the weekend, eating in restaurants, meeting with friends, etc… Life was good.
I woke up early on the morning of Friday 17th of October 2014. This was a habit for me if I knew that the weather would be calm and nice upon sunrise. I would usually check the forecast on my phone when going to bed on Thursday evening and should it looked good, I would set my alarm clock to around 4:30am. You may wonder why waking up so early on a weekend when I could have just relaxed and stayed in bed. Well, my hobby is to fly using a paramotor. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s basically an engine strapped onto my back and a glider over my head. This great activity allows me to relax while enjoying the landscape from a different perspective. The only downside to it is that the best time to do it is very early in the morning or late in the evening so as to avoid the heat and turbulences of the midday.
So, as I said, on that morning, I woke up early, put all my equipment into the car and without taking any breakfast, made my way to Ghantoot (between Abu Dhabi and Dubai). This is the place where some friends and I used to meet and fly either together in the same direction or on our own. I arrived there at around 6:30am and that day there was no one else, I was on my own the whole time I prepared and until I lifted off the ground. I got ready setting up my paramotor and glider, filling up the tank with enough petrol to fly for about one and half hour. I couldn’t stay too long as I had to be back in Dubai at 11am for a friend’s birthday brunch. At around 7am, I was ready; I strapped myself, turned on the engine, ran a bit and took off. I immediately started flying towards Abu Dhabi while following The E11 highway on my side. I started enjoying the fauna I could see from above, like deers, gazelles, foxes and even oryxes and ostriches in an enclosed farm. After a while, I reached the town of Rahba and just before the junction of E11 and 16th street I made a U-turn and started flying back towards my take off site but this time being on the other side of E11. As I passed above a petrol station, I noticed a big group of Harley Davidson riders. They were early too. I guess they were enjoying the cool breeze before the heat of the day. I could see that one of them saw me and took a picture of me. I continued my journey seeing again some beautiful animals and landscapes. When I reached the Golden Tulip hotel, I decided to fly above the canal in front of it but after waving at a few customers on the beach of the Swiss-Belresort hotel, I decided to fly straight back to the car as I wasn’t sure how much petrol I had left in the tank.
Upon reaching my landing site, I realized that my car was still the only one around meaning that no one else came while I was up in the air. I landed and then as usual, slowly started cleaning and packing my equipment back into the car while reflecting on the great relaxing flight I had just had. Just as I was doing so, a fellow pilot, Bruce, arrived. He was late and wanted to check whether the weather was still ok for him to fly. We ended up chatting while I was going on with my packing. Then a police car came and stopped next to us. It was around 8:30am.
Two officers came down and with a broken english, asked me whether the equipment, pointing at the back of my car, was mine, to which I replied yes. They then asked for my ID, which I gladly gave them while asking what the issue was. I received no answer and they went back to their car and stayed there for around 20 minutes while I was still packing and chatting with Bruce. Once I was done and ready to leave to go to my friend’s birthday brunch I went to the police car and asked what was going on and whether I could get my ID back and leave. I was left completely in the dark then because I knew I had not done anything wrong and because they were not answering me. After a few minutes, they asked me to come with them to Rahba police station but without giving me the reason why. Since I had no doubts that I was clear of any wrong doing, I accepted to follow them, but not before I called my wife to let her know what was going on. Bruce decided to also follow and come along.
Once at the police station we were asked to sit in the office of one of the main officers. There, an interrogation started through a video conference with a translator. I was asked several questions but what they mostly wanted to know was where I bought my equipment and who sold it to me. I answered all the questions and when I asked why I was being interrogated like this, I was informed that I had flown over a school and that it was forbidden but everything was ok, that I would be on my way home soon. Fair enough, I remembered seeing a school while flying but I wasn’t directly above it. In all cases, before I started flying in the UAE, the first thing I did was to enquire about the legality of it, as well as identify allowed areas. Ghantoot is one area which as per the aeronautical charts provided by the GCAA (General Civil Aviation Authority of the UAE) is clear for flying. So I was 100% sure that as per the law, I didn’t fly in a restricted or prohibited area.
Anyways, once the video conference was over, Bruce and I were directed to the next office where I was asked a few more questions and the officer at the desk started typing on his computer. There, I was told that my mistake was actually flying above a VIP’s house. Ok, so in a matter of 15 minutes, the school became a VIP’s villa, hmmm…. A moment later we were taken to again another office and presented with a paper in Arabic, which the officers in the room wanted me to sign. Not knowing how to speak Arabic, not to mention read and write Arabic, I asked what it was and what the content was. Since none of them spoke proper English, they had to find another officer who could translate and explain things to me. Somehow I felt unsecure by then and didn’t have a good feeling about it. I felt like I couldn’t trust any of these officers. An English-speaking officer came and told me in short sentences that the content said something like “I acknowledge flying above a restricted area and will not do it again”. Bruce and I decided to challenge this a bit by asking them where exactly this area was. We wanted to make sure that indeed I did fly above it and also for future reference so we make sure we avoid flying around it again; but they didn’t want to give us that information and neither did they ask me where I flew. My guts told me not to sign that paper, that it was trouble for me, so I refused. This is where things got really bad for me. It was like the officers felt insulted that I didn’t sign it and from that moment they were so angry that it was obvious they were going to do their best to make sure I’m in big trouble. This was the time Bruce had to leave; it was already around 10:30-11:00am.
I was asked to wait back in the first office. I could hear the main officer being on the phone and arguing. At least, that’s how it sounded. One of the persons in the room turned to me and told me “big problem habibi” which was confirming my thoughts of them trying hard to get back at me for not signing that paper. I waited and waited and waited… and then it was time for the Friday’s prayer so I was led to the station’s detention center and told to stay there until the end of the prayer. At least I wasn’t put in a cell but asked to wait on the benches in the lobby. It was so cold in there because of the air conditioning that I requested the permission from the officer in charge to let me sit on the stairs outside, which he kindly agreed to. I talked to him a bit and asked what was going with my case. He told me that they didn’t have anything serious against me and that the CID (crime investigation department) division of Abu Dhabi didn’t want to take on my case. It made me feel a bit better and so I decided to wait and see. The end of the prayer passed and nobody came for me. In the mean time, two 16 years old kids were brought in the detention center. When I asked the reason for their being there, I was informed that they were caught driving. Keep in mind that the legal age to drive in the UAE is 18 years old. They didn’t stay long though as they were quickly released to their parents, as if nothing happened. Yet, there I was, being held in a detention center for doing nothing wrong. It just felt like a nightmare but unfortunately for me, there was no waking up, I was fully awake. Needless to say that by then I had missed the birthday brunch. Since the whole thing started I was in possession of my phone, they never took it away from me so I was still in touch with my wife and Bruce, telling them what was happening, but my phone battery was getting very low. I could sense my wife was getting very worried but I tried to comfort her as much as I could by telling her that it was a silly mistake and that things would be alright. I’m not sure I believed it myself though.
More than an hour after the end of the prayer had passed and I was growing very much impatient. I was getting angry at the situation and demanded that I am taken to the main officer’s office to understand what was going on and to get this whole situation over with. An officer reluctantly took me there and I was met with these cold faces and angry looks. The next thing I know, I’m told that I was to be taken to Abu Dhabi to the CID headquarters and handed over to them, that I wasn’t their responsibility anymore. Obviously this news didn’t sit well with me and I started arguing with them, telling them that they had no rights as I had not broken any law. Because of my agitation the main officer must have felt threatened and ordered for shackles to be put on my feet. First time ever I had to wear shackles. I can honestly say that they are not comfortable at all and actually painful. This is the last time I spoke to my wife that day, and I could definitely feel her being scared and not knowing what to do.
A few minutes later, I was taken to my car where they checked the content and asked me to surrender the keys so that they could tow it to Abu Dhabi along with me. I refused arguing that all of this was just a silly mistake and that it had gone too far already, that it was time to stop it. But it fell on death ears and I had no choice but to go along with their request.
At around 14:45, I was put inside a transfer van, fully shackled. Like every transfer van in the UAE, the back was fitted with a cage, which I had to share with another person. Along the way, I received a call from my boss who had been informed of the situation by my wife. He was checking on me and asking if there was anything he could do. I remember being deep in my thoughts after that trying to understand what was happening as well as telling myself that the CID officers would realize the police’s mistake and let me be on my way home. I had missed the birthday celebration, but maybe I could make it home for dinner.
Oh was I wrong! When we arrived at the building, I was led out of the van and into an office on the 2nd or 3rd floor all the while with the shackles on. They didn’t want to remove them and hid behind their saying that “it’s procedure”… It’s not like I had any thoughts of escaping….
Another batch of interrogations started, some over video conference with a translator, and I was as compliant as one can be so as to try to get this ordeal over with and be on my way home. I was doing my best in trying to prove my innocence by going through some of the rules and regulations of the UAE’s GCAA as well as showing them the map I had on my phone. This map was an exact replica of the map available on the GCAA’s website but using Google earth. It clearly showed that the area I flew was not restricted nor prohibited but they didn’t care. What transpired from the questions I was asked is that now the accusation was that I flew over a military base and a Sheikh’s Palace, but also that I flew without a license. So it went from a school, to a VIP’s house and now the Palace of a high person in the UAE as well as a military base and all of that without a license. This last point was ridiculous because as per the GCAA’s rules and regulations there is no issuance of licenses and it is not required either to fly ultra-light aircrafts in the UAE. This really sounded like a joke but I realized then that things were most likely not going to go the way I wanted. The most frustrating part is that I was accused without giving me any details on where exactly these locations were and neither was I asked a single time where I flew. So in my mind, they were simply lying and trying to convict me for something I had not done. Why not show me on the map so I could confirm whether or not I got close to these places? Instead, I was asked to sign a paper, which was again fully written in Arabic. I was told it was a transcript of the interview. I felt like I had no choice and so I signed it, but my mind kept saying “Don’t sign it!”.
I spent about 3 to 4 hours in a waiting room with other people at the CID headquarters, going from one office to the other one, being very hungry since I didn’t have any food for the whole day. Remember, I didn’t take any breakfast before I left home. I was also very cold with the A/C at full blast in every room. I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
After a while a CID officer came to take me to his office on the 1st floor. He was going to check my background, meaning my past 11 years in the UAE. I knew that the only thing he’d find would be speeding tickets so I was confident that at least this would help my case. He was kinder than the other officers. He asked for the shackles to be removed so I could make my way to his office easily. While going down he was trying to reassure me telling me that he was only going to check my past and that I would be on my way home soon, that there was no reason why I would be staying here any longer. I wanted to believe him. Once we got to his office, he offered me a bottle of water and asked me to wait in a room while he was on the phone and his computer in another. This is the time I received a call from an employee at my country’s consulate. They had been informed of my case by my wife and were asking me what the situation was. I simply told the woman on the call what I had just been told by this officer. My phone battery died before we could complete the call.
After a while the same officer took me back to the waiting room upstairs. On the way he told me that he didn’t have anything on me and that it was the first officers’ decision to release me or not. Shackles back on.
After a while the officers in the room decided to order dinner for themselves and were kind enough to ask whether I wanted something. I was starving so I ordered a falafel sandwich. Before the food arrived, I was led to the interview room again and asked to sign another paper. When I asked what it was I was simply told that it was a copy of the transcript I’d signed earlier but when I compared them, they looked different. Again, I didn’t want to sign it but because I felt like I had no choice, I did sign it, but not before writing at the bottom of the page that “I do not understand what I’m signing”. They didn’t appear pleased with that but they let it go. This is roughly the time when I was told I wasn’t going to make it home that night and that I was going to spend the night in a detention center. I was being charged for flying illegally without a license and above a Sheikh’s palace as well as a military zone. You can imagine how my mood went from zero to the abyss…
I was led back to the waiting room before they could transfer me. The food had arrived but that news got me feeling so down that I wasn’t hungry anymore and so I declined it, which made the officer angry. He was mad at me for ordering something and not having it. Under other circumstances I would definitely understand his point of view, but he had to understand mine, I was just told that I would spend the night in detention despite doing nothing wrong. I had never spent a night in detention before. I had never done anything that would land me in one before.
The transfer van arrived and two of us were led to it before it made its way to the detention center at Khalifa police station. The driver was a maniac. If nothing, he should have been the one spending the night in detention with all the road rules he broke, not me.
Upon arriving at the station I was searched and my belt, my phone and my wallet were taken away from me before I was taken to the cells where there was already about 15 people. I looked around for a bed and blanket, confirmed it wasn’t anybody’s and just lied down. This was it, the day was over for me, I was just going to sleep with an empty stomach and hope that things would get better the next day but I couldn’t help thinking about how my wife and 5 months old daughter were doing.
It was only the beginning of a long road to freedom.
Life abroad can be great. We had it good. But you always need to be careful; things can turn sour in an instant without any wrong doing on your part. We both still love the UAE and would love to go back there eventually for a visit and see the friends we left behind, but we don’t feel safe being there.
Today is October 17th 2015 and I obviously can’t help but remember that worst day of my life. I’m not ashamed of what happened and see it as a typical “wrong place, wrong time” experience which I want to share with others as a caution. However I have decided that this is the first and last time it reminds me of a bad moment. As a reason, I have asked my wife to spend this evening having fun and celebrating so that the next October 17 will be happier.