Sunday, 5 July 2009

I don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident, but …

Members of the six UAE ruling families (who number in the thousands, many of them youngsters), members of the Federal National Council, Government ministers, ambassadors and envoys, advisers to the rulers and tribal sheikhs and their families are all entitled to a red travel booklet that carries the country’s national emblem – a UAE diplomatic passport.

There are a number of privileges associated with this red passport, and there have been some rare cases in the past when those privileges were abused.

Theoretically, the holder of a red passport can import to the country, unquestioned, anything from illegal weapons, pornography and medication to wild animals with the potential to spread disease (which for a number of years caused the UAE to be designated as a non-compliant state by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

On my frequent travels in and out of the country I am periodically stopped and asked to put my bags through a scanner: I promptly oblige, as I have nothing to hide. On one occasion last year when I was returning from abroad my baggage helper noticed the red passport in my jacket pocket and advised me to keep it visible so that we could pass through the baggage controls easily.

I declined to do so. When we reached baggage control I was told by an officer to put my bags through the X-ray machine. The baggage helper, who probably wanted to avoid handling my bag over and over again, informed the officer that I had a red diplomatic passport. A minor diplomatic incident almost broke out when I told the helper not to mention it again, but he carried on regardless.

The police officer assured me that I need not put my bag through the machine, but I insisted on doing so. Apparently the mere mention, let alone sight, of a red passport allows one to pass freely through any airport in the country: genuine diplomats could be unknowingly exploited, for example if someone abroad sent a package with them to be sent on to a friend in the country.

I have always objected to this diplomatic exemption, as I believe it is prejudicial to the country’s security. However, I have been told that in any country diplomats have the right not to be searched upon entry in accordance with international custom, which I understand. What I don’t understand is that the airport guards – and this happens across the country by the way – do not even check that the diplomatic passport belongs to the bearer.

There are countless incidents of lost and misplaced passports and it is not so difficult to duplicate the size and colour with the national emblem. In fact, some western countries have passports of a similar shade of red that can easily be confused with our own. Border guards must at least ask anyone who brandishes the red booklet to hand it over to verify the authenticity of the passport and make sure that it belongs to the bearer.

This need not create any embarrassment, either to the baggage controllers or the diplomats, if it is done in a polite manner. They can then refrain from checking the bags, although personally I think that if someone is acting strangely and officers have reason to be suspicious, then the person involved should have their luggage scanned – not active UAE diplomats, perhaps, but certainly their sons and daughters travelling alone or with friends.

According to a report in The National recently, Dubai Police seized 41 per cent more drugs between January and May this year than in the same period last year. There is no doubt that the UAE’s superb global airline connections network and tolerant nature have contributed to making it a transit point for drug smugglers. To fight this crime and safeguard our children and their future, all loopholes must be closed: and brandishing a red booklet to avoid being searched is one such small but dangerous loophole.

Allowing selected persons to walk freely through baggage controls must stop, and there must be more scrutiny. My diplomatic peers don’t mind having their bags checked through a scanner, neither do I, and nor should anyone with nothing to hide.

*This article was first published in The National on Sunday, July 5th 2009.

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