For many passengers, flying on a long haul flight and sampling some of the vast onboard selection of high-end alcoholic beverages is a routine part of the journey. Especially when flying Gulf carriers, including UAE’s Emirates and Etihad Airways — of whom both have onboard bar and lounge areas, dedicated to ‘enjoying a drink in the sky’. While both are airline carriers of an Arab nation (United Arab Emirates), most Gulf carriers (including Qatar Airways, and Oman Air) cater for the international market, and therefore offer complimentary alcohol in every cabin class.
However, the British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has issued a warning to Britons travelling to, or via Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The statement warns: “If you are caught with alcohol in your blood in the UAE, you can be arrested.” The embassy furthers the warning by adding: “It is a punishable offence to be under the influence of alcohol in public, including when transiting through the UAE.”
What Does This Mean?
The new warning from the British Embassy has been issued to protect travellers from the ‘grey area’ that is formed when UAE alcohol laws, meet UAE air travel.
British officials are concerned that travellers may risk arrest in UAE through no obvious fault of their own. To better explain the situations whereby passengers could be ‘caught out’ by these laws, I’ve written these two scenarios:
- A passenger being offered alcohol onboard a flight from the UK to the Maldives via Dubai, onboard an Emirati airline (Emirates or Etihad Airways), could be tested for alcohol by police during the brief transit stopover at Dubai Airport, and then subsequently arrested for having alcohol in the blood supply, despite the alcohol originally being served to the passenger by an Emirati carrier, and only ever being consumed onboard.
- A passenger consuming alcohol before a flight in the Etihad Business Class lounge at Abu Dhabi Airport could be determined as ‘under the influence of alcohol’ upon the passenger exiting the lounge. If Emirati police were to test the passenger and find alcohol in their blood supply, the passenger could then face jail.
While it may seem extraordinary that Emirati airline companies are more than willing to serve passengers alcohol, despite knowing that passengers could then face arrest if alcohol is found in the blood supply at Dubai or Abu Dhabi Airports — Britain’s new warning to travellers is in direct response to a recent incident of a similar scenario.
A passenger, Dr Holman, who has lived in the UK for 20 years and holds dual Swedish and Iranian citizenship, had travelled to Dubai with an Iranian passport on a single-entry visa that had expired. While she was undoubtedly in the wrong (in terms of trying to enter the UAE with invalid documents), she was first told to immediately fly home, but was later arrested after a undergoing a blood test at a police station — where police found alcohol in her blood supply. Dr Holman said she had drank one glass of wine on an Emirates flight from London. She was then taken to a prison for three days. Local Emirati media report Dr Holman did ‘make the situation worse’ by arguing with Immigration officers, (something you should never do), and they also claim she proceeded to film the officers — something Dr Holman admits she ‘shouldn’t have done’.
Despite this recent incident being a little more complex (given her incorrect documents, allegedly argumentative nature, etc) the incident has put spotlight on how the Emirati police’s decision to send Dr Holman to jail was primarily because of the finding of alcohol in her blood supply, upon arrival to Dubai Airport.
Radha Stirling, chief executive of human rights group Detained in Dubai, said: “In light of the FCO’s announcement, we will be contacting all airlines who transit to or through the UAE to clarify their position on serving alcohol to passengers. Either the UAE will need to reform their laws urgently, or the airlines will need to update their policy to ensure the safety of customers.”
This is an important, and necessary warning from the UK government’s Embassy in the UAE. The vast majority of passengers flying Emirates are not finishing their journey in the UAE, but instead using it as a stopover/transit point. Hence, most international passengers are completely unaware of the complexities regarding accepting an alcoholic drink onboard a flight to the UAE and the consequences that could lead to during a transit at Dubai or Abu Dhabi airports.
Do you think Emirates and Etihad Airways need to better communicate the risks associated with consuming alcohol on their flights?