There is something sinister lurking behind Dubai's image as a sophisticated, ultra-modern destination for Western tourists.

While most of the 14 million visitors who flock to the glittering Emirati city each year will arrive and leave without incident, when something goes wrong - especially for a tourist who becomes the victim of a heinous crime - a nightmare can go from bad to much worse.

This week, Dubai authorities dropped charges against a British tourist who was facing jail after telling police she had been gang-raped in a hotel room.

Her alleged crime - despite her claims she was assaulted - was that she had had sex outside of marriage: a crime punishable by jail time, flogging and even stoning to death in the United Arab Emirates.


The woman was freed after prosecutors reviewed mobile phone footage of the incident and concluded it was "consensual".

It was a welcome but perhaps unexpected move by Dubai authorities who have previously aggressively prosecuted Western tourists who have become victims of rape.

Writing in The Independent after the woman's arrest, Radha Stirling, founder of UK-based advocacy group Detained in Dubai, said such situations were common in the Gulf states.

"Dubai struggles to maintain its promoted reputation of being tolerant, modern, progressive and focused on happiness and positivity, while it regularly victimises women for reporting crime," Ms Stirling said.

Detained in Dubai was involved in the case of Australian woman Alicia Gali, who spent eight months locked up in Dubai after she was drugged and violently raped. She had been sentenced to one year in prison for having extramarital sex.

In 2013, a Norwegian woman was sentenced to 16 months in jail after she went to Dubai police to report she was raped during a business trip.

A French teenage boy who was gang raped in Dubai in 2007 was charged with homosexuality. He was 15 years old.

The prosecution of rape victims is not specific to Dubai: in the Gulf country of Qatar in June, a Dutch tourist who reported her own rape was held for almost three months before being handed a one-year suspended sentence for having extramarital sex.

Downtown Dubai. Photo / 123RF
Downtown Dubai. Photo / 123RF

There are times when the mere accusation of sexual activity can be enough for punishment.

South African woman Roxanne Hillier was locked up for seven months in the UAE for allegedly spending time in a room with her male employer - despite medical reports showing the pair did not have sex. Detained in Dubai said the case demonstrated "lack of sustentative evidence is immaterial and the concept of a fair trial is non-existent" in the country.

And then there are cases when behaviour considered totally innocuous by most other jurisdictions attract tough penalties, as happened with the Indian couple sentenced to three months in jail for exchanging flirty text messages, and the British pair whose public kissing earned them a month behind bars.

Public displays of affection, getting drunk, wearing the wrong clothes, taking the wrong medicine and even swearing are among the list of things we're warned not to do in the UAE, where strict laws and penalties apply.

But it's the extraordinary legal backlash against victims of sexual assault in Dubai that is particularly distressing, rights groups say.

The UAE's legal system maintains a man cannot be convicted of rape without the testimonies of four witnesses. Coupled with the iron-fisted enforcement of laws forbidding sex outside of marriage, this creates a doubly difficult situation for their already vulnerable victims.

And this says nothing of the estimated hundreds of local women and domestic servants every year who are sexually assaulted and locked up for adultery in the Emirates.

The Department of Foreign Affairs' travel advice for the UAE warns that as sex outside of marriage is illegal, it is "possible that victims of sexual assault may face criminal prosecution rather than being considered the victim of a crime".

Ms Stirling from Detained in Dubai said victims should know the risks before seeking help from authorities.

"A common question we are asked as an organisation is whether a victim of crime should actually report it in Dubai," she said.

"Whether it is a rape, assault, slander or less serious crime, we always explain the risks involved in reporting anything to the police. The victim can be jailed themselves or subject to retaliatory accusations that can lead to lengthy detentions or legal proceedings.

One thing that rings true is that the system and its applications are volatile."

It is especially extraordinary advice given the concerns in Australia surrounding the under-reporting of sexual violence.

Rights groups have argued the decriminalisation of consensual sexual relations would reduce the possibility of victims being prosecuted.

So in light of the global criticism, and given that the UAE continues to promote itself as an attractive destination for Western tourists, what exactly is it doing to address this imbalance of justice?

Not much, Ms Stirling said.

"Even though the government is aware of the gross failings and abuses of justice, they seem to be more interested in funding projects that can be marketed in glossy magazines. It is all about appearances, not functionality," she said.

"The UAE knows our weaknesses. As tourists, we are attracted to the country because of the seven-star hotels, malls and entertainment and of course this won't change.

"When a failing judicial system meets dazzling tourism, some expats and tourists are going to feel the harsher side of Dubai, the side that can see innocent people victimised by the law."