Woman Jailed In UAE For “Writing Bad Words On Social Media”

Filed Under: Travel

One of the tricky things about some areas of the Middle East is the discrepancy between what the law says and what’s enforced in practice. There are several countries in the Middle East (in particular the UAE) which are trying really hard to build a sustainable economy which isn’t oil reliant, and in order to do that they have to attract as many foreigners as possible, both as visitors and workers.


Personally I quite like the UAE — I find it to be fascinating on so many levels, and I have good friends there. But then at times we read about UAE laws which sort of leave me scratching my head. For example, in mid-June I posted about how it’s illegal to swear by text message in the UAE. If convicted, one could face a fine of up to ~$68,000, a prison sentence, and/or deportation. If that were actually enforced, I don’t think the country’s two big airlines would have anyone to fly their planes. 😉

But there’s a story out of the UAE which is even more bizarre. An Australian woman has been taken into custody by authorities for “writing bad words on social media.” The crime? She had posted a picture on Facebook of a car blocking two disabled parking spaces outside her apartment.

Per Arabian Business:

An Australian woman has been jailed in Abu Dhabi, pending her deportation, for a cyber-crime offence after she posted a picture of a car parked across two disabled parking spaces outside her apartment.

Jodi Magi (39) blanked out the car registration number and did not provide any names or identifying details about the vehicle, which did not have a disability sticker, according to a report on ABC News.

However, someone lodged a complaint with Abu Dhabi Police and the case went to court, where Magi was found guilty of “writing bad words on social media”. She was issued with a fine and was told that she would be deported.

According to ABC News, who spoke with Magi prior to her detention in jail, she tried to pay the $2,600 (AED10,000) fine and leave the country of her own will, but the authorities insisted that she should present herself to court.

After being found guilty at an Abu Dhabi court on Sunday, Magi was taken into custody pending deportation to Australia.

What should we make of stories like this? To be honest… I don’t know exactly. I guess there are a few stances to take:

  • Refuse to visit the UAE. I know it’s something a lot of people do, but I have friends there and quite like the country, so it’s not something I’ll do. At the end of the day the country is quite progressive within the region, and that I appreciate. Sometimes it’s tough for countries to reconcile the differences between religious beliefs and practical laws… something we’ve certainly dealt with in the US over the years as well (though largely to a lesser extent).
  • Just be super careful. This is probably the camp I fall in. Think twice before doing anything.
  • Don’t piss off Emiratis. One of the fascinating things about going to the UAE is that you won’t be interacting with many Emiratis, but rather mostly with ex-pats and temporary workers from other countries. One thing most of these cases have in common is that complaints are typically lodged by Emiratis… that’s when the police actually seems to care.


What do you make of stories like this? Do they dissuade you from visiting a country like the UAE, or is this just one of the “dangers” of traveling?

  1. @ tim — It has everything to do with travel. What to do be aware of when you go to another country, and how local laws impact your travel decisions.

  2. I guess I should have kept my criticisms of Dubai to myself until I left the country. Good thing I didn’t get into trouble for all of my harsh words about that city. I have no issue with what the woman did, though to be fair I am not an overly sensitive Emirati

  3. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen. Majority of Asian countries are somewhat conservative even have restriction on freedom of speech. Including some of most visited destinations : China, Singapore, UAE…
    If you want to find destinations with freedom of speech , then visit Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand… These countries are pretty liberals…

  4. Thx, Ben, always good to know what laws are enforced – wouldn’t want to end up in jail or get deported on vacation.

  5. @ lucky

    And that’s how foreigners like @tim get arrested abroad and then claim they didn’t know the law and regulations.

    Back on topic, I think you’re spot on not pissing any Emiratis, I went earlier this year and people (employees) told us exactly how to behave when the owner (an Emirati) of the project we were visiting came. Since 80% of the population are either foreigners or ex-pats, they kind of develop a sense for respect (or fear) for Emiratis.

  6. I have a relative who lives and works in Qatar, and he has no complaints, but, he’s also a heterosexual man who appears to be of ambiguous ethnic heritage and doesn’t curse, drink and is discreet with his “love life” so he’s an ideal candidate to live in the ME. HOWEVER, I think it’s ridiculous for a place that wants to attract tourists and migrants from westernized countries with the claim of being a “modern” Middle East and jail/fine people for swearing. It’s just stupid. And pointless. And it’s going to make a lot of people want to steer clear of that place because they don’t want to end up getting in trouble for randomly doing something they wouldn’t have had to even think about in a more progressive, tolerant place. This has everything to do with travel and to me, it makes me not want to travel there.

  7. Not sure I understund the law she broke. What law did she brake? Taking picture of a car that wasn’t in her posession? Stating/Saying a specific word that is offensive to the local culture?
    I don’t mind following local laws if I know what they are. When people make up rules.laws on the spot, based on there beleives I have problem with. In that case I can wear blue pants that are just slightly off the accepted blue, can put me in jail, because it is offensive to someone’s accepted “cultural standards”.

  8. I have a few issues with this. Firstly – what was the actual crime? All the media reports i’ve read have all used the similar phrase about “writing bad words social media”. “bad words” is pretty vague and ambiguous! Did she swear, was it something nasty/insulting?

    Secondly – again with the ambiguity, if you were to put a post up complaining about service or something you weren’t happy with.. is that a crime? What’s the implications of someone like Ben who complains about someone at a restaurant or hotel as part of a trip report? Should we expect to see a review of the latest 2* Jail Cell?

    Thirdly – how did the authorities or the complainant actually see the post? If as has been said elsewhere she posted it on her facebook page, sounds like the person that complained was known to her and a friend? unless she had an open profile – in which case that’s something to be aware of! Or was it posted to a shared group (Here where i live there’s a couple of very public pages where people post photos of vehicles, number plates and all!)

    Lastly – i assume this would only apply to comments posted whilst within the UAE? IE if she had returned to Australia and posted the picture, then gone back to the UAE could she still be charged?

  9. I’m with Endre above. I have no issues with the laws/regulations of a foreign country. It’s when the foreign country randomly applies the law that is troublesome. What did the Australian women do that was wrong? Strange that the Australian embassy is not supporting her at all in what seems to be a very unfair situation.

    Personally, I never visited the Middle East, but have a potential trip planned to the UAE next year that I was on the fence about. This pushes me to never visit the Middle East and I’m pretty sure I’ll be canceling that trip.

  10. My reaction is crystalclear: I avoid the Arabic countries as well as Russia. There are enough countries in the world I can visit without the possibilty of being arrested for paranoid reasons of the local authorities…

  11. There is a very interesting chapter on UAE and Dubai in particular in Elizabeth Becker’s book “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism”. Worth a read.

  12. JimC: Bear in mind that the foreign embassies cannot do anything for you in the UAE if you’re in trouble. UAE is not the place where you have right and they don’t care about foreign countries so you can be American, European whatever, they don’t care. They put you to jail whether you’re working for the US government or you’re a rich Briton, they don’t care. They can do whatever they want.

    Best thing is not to go there. Instead go to Singapore, you’ll be amazed!

  13. @Troy – It is illegal to criticize or speak negatively of any business in the UAE. Truth is not a defense – if the person or owner of the business is offended by your comments, it is a crime – period. You can be sent to jail for saying that you didn’t enjoy dinner at a restaurant if the owner complains. The legal system here is based on “wasta” rather than evidence. Whoever is better connected wins any dispute, regardless of any facts. I had a colleague whose legally parked car was hit by an Emirati driver in the parking lot, but she was held responsible for the accident because “if you did not come to this country, he would not have run into your car”. That’s just the way it goes. Roll with it.

  14. “Just be super careful. ” Who wants to constantly be walking on eggshells, particularly when on vacation? We are not talking about well written laws and well functioning courts here. It’s one thing when laws are clear and enforcement is consistent. In a lot of these countries, laws are vaguely written on purpose, so that those who annoy the powerful or the state can be detained or killed off. However, most countries avoid targeting tourists, it’s usually reserved for activists or political opponents.

    People forget that a few shiny buildings and shopping malls does not make a country “modern”. Nor does new wealth from natural resources. “Modern” represents maturity of government and social institutions, among other things. Your advice seems reasonable: Don’t interact with native locals (you never know when you might offend one), be super careful (I suppose these two can apply to some neighborhoods in U.S. cities too), or the best one: just don’t go there. The world’s a big place, are you really that desperate that you can’t find another place to visit?

  15. Interesting to see complaints about UAE not being a progressive, tolerant place. You could say the same about Singapore and a bunch of other places. Perhaps the whole world is just not progressive enough to allow people to bring pot on airplane flights (like Oregon) or illegally immigrate to sanctuary cities (like San Francisco) to murder women. Wasn’t it Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who advised si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi? Know the laws and customs of the places you intend to visit. And if you do not care for the laws and customs, do not visit.

  16. Ben – The UAE has a deplorable human rights policy and record including the death penalty for homosexual acts, flogging and stoning, suppression of free speech, punishment of rape victims, etc. The fact that others in the middle east are worse is cold comfort.

    So…what exactly is it that attracts you to the UAE, other than the vague statement that you find it “fascinating”? How do you justify supporting (with your visits and purchases, etc) such a country? And what are you doing to support human rights improvements there if you’re a fan of the country and presumably want to see it improved?

  17. Bottom line in any country that doesn’t adhere to the rule of law: Behave as though you are visiting the house of a very violent felon. Be polite, be apologetic, don’t complain and leave as soon as reasonably possible.

    Being right isn’t important.

    Your other alternative is to make sure that your financial resources and power to make life miserable to anyone who f*$%s with you make you worth being treated with respect.

  18. I am not gay, but I find it repugnant that homosexuality is punishable by castration or death in the UAE. I have traveled to many countries (and greatly appreciate your wonderful advice, Lucky), but avoid those in which ordinary people can be imprisoned or worse for simply living. By setting foot in the UAE, I would be supporting that country, albeit in a small way, and thus helping to perpetuate those policies. I figure if everyone acted as I do, perhaps things would change. I will not turn a blind eye to evil.

  19. I think you can do whatever you want and go wherever you want. Just don’t write us to complain if you scratch a body part and get thrown in jail. It amazes me that people go there – with all the repressive laws on their books – and then are shocked when the shit hits the fan. It’s not Switzerland, folks!

  20. @AlohaDaveKennedy

    The difference between the UAE and Singapore is that Singapore, as draconian as some of their laws may be, applies them fairly consistently to both Singaporean and foreigner alike. The UAE (and other Gulf states) tend to apply their laws inconsistently, depending on whether a person is a citizen or a foreigner.

    A great example is this…

    An emirati complains about a restaurant meal. Foreigner who owns restaurant complains. Restaurant owner is deported for serving poor meal.

    A foreigner complains about a restaurant meal. Emirati who owns restaurant complains. Complaining foreigner is deported for defaming an emirati.

  21. As a “Western” woman, I have ZERO interest in visiting the UAE. Why would I want to spend my vacation and tourist dollars in a place where I need to be “super careful.” When I travel I do my best to be respectful of others and if I mess up that usually translates into some foreigner thinking I am a clueless or at worst an Ugly American. I can live with that. What I can’t live with is the uncertainty that if I p*ss someone (local) off that I can be fined, jailed and who knows what else.

    What if some local decides I have offended him by not wanting to go out with him and then makes up a story about how I swore at him. Whose word do you think will be believed? So does “super careful” mean acquiescing to any and all requests?

  22. I personally think people need to mind their own business and stop insisting other people join their pointless boycotts (except in extreme cases – like visiting IS etc).

    I can GUARANTEE you’ve visited a country that others deem reprehensible – even if you’ve never left your own (why not boycott the US – a country that tortures and holds people indefinitely without charge?). Ditto with behavior at home, I’d be shocked if you own nothing made with quasi-slave labor.

    Make your own moral judgements over the amount of suffering you will “support”, and leave others to make their own.

  23. I loved flying on Emirates last year, but I just stayed at the airport during the 9 hour layover….doing the same thing next year. Prague is more of my thing, not Dubai.

  24. I have to agree with @Reine, @Mallthus, @Troy, and @Betty. Before reading about this, I was slightly wary but perfectly willing to visit. Now much less so. There’s no such thing as a perfectly egalitarian society, where the rule of law is applied equally for everyone, but this is just nuts. Forgetting for a moment that you’re effectively making it illegal but (usually) unenforced to be a foreigner, this inherently weakens all laws. In addition, I have issues with someone’s ethnicity making them automatically wrong in any dispute, and given the struggle of so many people for that basic fairness, both domestically and worldwide, I think this leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. It’s the antithesis of the American premise of a fair shake. I have trouble seeing how anyone can see this as civilized.

  25. I’ve heard that the US holds prisoners indefinitely without trial in offshore prisons. I’m never going there.

  26. Any law that inhibits free speech is questionable in my opinion. However, it is important to obey the laws of a foreign country when you are a visitor.

    What seems to be missing from the report on the “arabian business” website and the original report on ABC Australia (http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2015/s4272855.htm) are details of any comments the woman added to accompany the photo on Facebook or a statement that there were no comments. In my experience Facebook photos are usually commented especially if they are pointing out some perceived injustice.

    I don’t know if ABC Australia is reputable or if it is willing to omit part of the situation to make the report more juicy.

  27. I refuse to visit a country where being gay is possibly punishable by death (per UAE penal code 354). Or maybe its flogging. Or maybe its a year in prison (UAE penal code 356). Now, I know its not always actively enforced. But it IS there. The same for Qatar. I would love to see the architecture, but I struggle with even using a gulf carrier. YMMV, but I know there are a lot of countries that would be very welcoming to my fabulous gay self. I am not going to go out of my way to visit a country who thinks my very existence should be punished.

  28. The mind boggles at the interest people have for visiting and living in the ME. The climate of fear that results in self-censorship is what bothers me most, in addition to the biased application of the law.

    What is also surprising is how people can so easily be swayed by the razzle-dazzle offered by the ME3 airlines, which are not just airlines but a vehicle of cultural export (pardon the pun). Think of it as the BBC or Hollywood with wings.

    I’m all up for these airlines being a vehicle for bridging the gap in cultures. But the core of society needs to change* otherwise it would be just as superficial as the modernizing attempts in China of the Qing dynastic in the late 19th century. We all know how that ended…

    *Like it or not change = progressive change. Conservative commentators have missed the memo that progressive change is inevitable with increased globalization, mass-consumerism and universal emancipation.

  29. I must say this is one F..Up country, I repeat Fxxked up country. They have a lot of pride and trying to show off pretend to be the best country on the planet, but they have so many double standards. Couples are not allowed to kiss in public, they pretend to be one holy country, but look at how many prostitutes are working in the discos, why they allow this to happen….guess they need business and money….Alcohol is forbidden due to their religion but it’s ok to drink in the bar because they need money from foreigners.

  30. @Tim, did you actually read the article? Not hard to figure out the correlation between what happened and its relation to travel. SMH.

  31. As an Arab and a GCC citizen I often roll my eyes of how media outlets present the ‘news’ on such issues. Don’t forget we are young nation states and are developing both in terms of civil law and along with our relationship with the outside world vis a vis our heritage. The news stories don’t explain exactly what her post was. As such we cannot judge based on our own assumptions.

    When you are in a foreign land you need to follow their rules. In the US people get shot or chocked to death all the time by the police themselves but you are not complaining. Human rights record you say? Have you forgotten Gitmo? I don’t mind the U.S. I am just giving you examples of hypocrisy.

    I hope all the best for this young lady. The UAE is one of the most progressive countries in the MENA region and I wish them every success. If you are interested in a book to understand more about them and please read from Rages to Riches by Al Fahim.

  32. I would like to hear both sides of this story, and would not be prepared to accept Magi’s account uncorroborated, especially coming through our somewhat partisan broadcaster, the ABC. Magi’s main claim to fame in Australia is her wearing of a t-shirt with the words: “F**k Tony Abbott” (our prime minister), which should not be acceptable in any country. Australia’s history of consular assistance to citizens in trouble overseas has always been exemplary – perhaps their advice that she needs a lawyer is the right form of assistance in her present circumstances. Travellers are warned constantly of the different standards applying to different cultures.

  33. @TheRealBabushka – “*Like it or not change = progressive change. Conservative commentators have missed the memo that progressive change is inevitable with increased globalization, mass-consumerism and universal emancipation.”

    HAHAHAHAHA! You’re pretty sure of yourself there, Sparky. But in exactly which future century do you predict this to come to fruition? I’m betting your “increased globalization” and “mass-consumerism” will likely lead to the planet being destroyed first.

  34. Maybe I’m just not reading carefully, but was she arrested because of the photo of the car or because she posted “bad words”? RT has an article about Magi, and they display a picture of her in a t-shirt which appears to say “F*CK ZONE” (without the asterisk) which in the credits says came from her facebook page. Maybe the car picture drew the attention of the authorities but her t-shirt picture was what actually got her into trouble?

  35. @Abdulrahman – “Don’t forget we are young nation states and are developing both in terms of civil law and along with our relationship with the outside world vis a vis our heritage.”

    That’s no excuse for putting someone in jail for speaking their mind.

    “The news stories don’t explain exactly what her post was.”

    I don’t see how that’s relevant. Freedom to offend is essential to the concept of freedom of speech.

    “As such we cannot judge based on our own assumptions.”

    We most certainly CAN judge. It doesn’t matter what exactly she said. See above.

    “In the US people get shot or chocked to death all the time by the police themselves but you are not complaining.”

    You just destroyed any credibility you may have had with this ridiculous statement. People complain about the police ALL THE TIME in the US. A quick look at the comments section of any US media article discussing anything about the police will disprove your claim.

    “The UAE is one of the most progressive countries in the MENA region”

    That’s not saying very much, is it? If this is true, it’s frightening.

    “I wish them every success.”

    If this is the kind of crap they pull, I hope they fall on their asses.

  36. @UnLuCkY,

    One is never sure, though one is hopeful that the enduring spirit, genorisity, wisdom and kindness of humanity will prevail and see us through to a better future for the planet and all the creatures that inhabits it.

  37. @Brian

    How sad it is to read comments such as yours. Breaking the law and then suffering the consequences is the a key fact of the sovereign status of all countries. Or do you adhere to the logic that if you don’t like the law or if the law is different than your own that you can invade the country and change the regime. I hope not.

    Let me ask you who defines freedom of speech and what are the limits of the same. Again you judge based on your background and sadly this reflects a limitation. Do you know exactly what happened? If so please cite the credible news source as I would want to receive all the information before making my opinion. Again the UAE have laws, these people are not citizens and neither am I. To travel to a country is a choice. If you don’t like it please feel free not to travel the country. I assume you won’t be going to North Korea any time soon.

    In regards to the police. Please read up on the facts and the figures. Again I am not interested in dealing with internet trolls so won’t make this confrontational. However it is an established fact that the US justice system has some major failings when it is compared to many other ‘developed’ or so called ‘western’ countries. The police kill more people in the US and incarcerate more people based on head of population than many other countries. Thanks to cell phone footage we are now only finding out the extend of the brutality in some (not all) police departments. I hope that this can become a wake up call. I suggest you see a program called Last Week Tonight by J.Oliver if you do not have time to read through material on the issue as he is enlightening on many US based issues by providing facts and figures to substantiate his claims (even if it is in a comedic way) or of course John Stewart’s show which sadly will end soon.

    I do agree with one point you made however in regards to the need for more progress in the region. We as a people (GCC) have had many areas where we progressed faster than the west (Woman’s inheritance, and education are examples) – yes I am referring to the point of becoming a nation state as the stating point to measuring the achievement of such things. However we do have a long way to go and I hope that we can take the best practices from all countries and apply them.

    I wouldn’t want any country to ‘fail’ or to go backwards. Not your country, not the UAE, and certainly not my own.

    Good day to you Sir and I am sorry if my comments cause you any offense.

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