Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Wikicommons

A British national and a Syrian man were sentenced to death in Abu Dhabi for trying to sell a small amount of marijuana, once again highlighting the severe punishments meted out in the Gulf state for crimes that would be viewed as minor in the West.

According to reports, the two men, who were aged 21 and 19, attempted to sell 20 grams of marijuana for about $400 to a local policeman.

The Daily Telegraph of Britain reported, however, that while the court entered the maximum sentence possible, the exercise of capital punishment is relatively rare in Abu Dhabi.

Moreover, any death sentence in Abu Dhabi would have to be approved by the country’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa al-Nahyan, who is sensitive about maintaining good relations with Great Britain.

Still, foreigners are advised to avoid having anything to do with drugs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The two defendants will likely serve prison terms of somewhere between one and seven years. Other crimes such as bouncing a check or public indecency (i.e., kissing in public, wearing revealing clothes, etc.) can also lead to prison terms in the small state.

Radha Stirling, the founder of an organization called Detained in Dubai, which campaigns for foreigners arrested in Dubai on relatively routine charges, said in a statement: “We call on national governments, including the UK, to finally take decisive action and properly warn their citizens about the real risks of visiting the UAE.

She added: “We call on… governments to immediately initiate a communications campaign to adequately and properly warn their citizens of the unusual and unexpected risks of stopping over, vacationing, doing business, investing, etc. in the UAE until the country modernizes its laws… Until then, we advise all foreign nationals to avoid travel to and through the UAE, because the risks are simply not worth it.”

Stirling’s group said they receive countless calls from foreigners every week who have been arrested on a number of minor charges while visiting or transiting through Abu Dhabi.

Such “offenses” have been included having poppy seeds struck to the bottom of a shoe or being drunk in public (often without evidence).

A deeply conservative Islamic society, Abu Dhabi strictly forbids (and sometimes severely punishes) other practices that are regarded as ordinary in western nations, including sexual relations outside of marriage, speeding, jaywalking, dancing at picnics, spitting in public, and even married people holding hands in public.