Sunday, January 8, 2012

What would you do?

People living in the UAE consider it very safe. Violent crime is minimal and, for the most part, limited to the rather dismal industrial areas and prefab cities where "laborers," i.e., construction workers, are housed in massive, cramped barracks.

The main reason for this is that the justice system is horribly out of whack and you don't want to get caught up in it, even if you're innocent. If you're guilty (or found guilty), even some of the most minor offenses, like shoplifting, can get you deported. And for most of the blue-collar folks here--in other words, the have-nots, those most likely to commit theft--that's an economic death sentence, as their home countries offer worse wages, worse living conditions and fewer opportunities.

So what would you do if this happened to you?

Paying the taxi, I realised I'd left my wallet in the car. I called the girl at the service centre and headed back to Al Habtoor. I was laughing and joking with her as we got to the car together and I picked up my wallet, which had been relieved of its cash contents, about Dhs400 in all.

It didn't sink in at all until later. Someone had actually taken money from my car. To those of you living elsewhere, this will come as no surprise, you're probably sitting there thinking, 'Like, obviously, duh' and I appreciate why you would. But I live in one of the safest places in the world. We're all of us on the hog's back here, from labourers through to CEOs we're all in the UAE because we're better off than we would be back at home. Any criminal conviction, once you've done your time in El Slammer, means getting sent home and so crime, for the vast majority of us, doesn't pay.

The service centre manager was, I was told, investigating. After a while, he'd drawn a blank and, well, that was sort of that, really. I asked him to call the police. He said they wouldn't do anything, he'd had experience of this sort of thing before. I insisted. He refused. I pointed out it was his secure area, his employee and his responsibility. He said they had internal procedures and he couldn't call the police. I asked him to escalate to someone who could call the police and he ignored me. It all got a little heated. It wasn't really about Dhs400 by now, but about someone who had chosen to steal from me. I called the police myself. After ringing out twice, the 999 number answered. I had tried calling police HQ, but they didn't answer at all. You do wonder sometimes.

The CID chap turned up, a young chap in a baseball cap and dishdash. The service centre manager and I explained (he had no English) and he nodded sagely and took my ID, borrowing a pen and piece of paper from the manager to write down my details. Watching him, I was strongly reminded of our friend captain Mohammed filling out Paul's charge sheet in Olives, his tongue stuck out in concentration...

At this point one of the service staff popped in and put a wad of money on the manager's desk and murmered a name. I got the impression the staff had taken matters into their own hands - nobody really wants CID snooping around their workplace asking awkward questions. The culprit was called for - the most stupid thief imaginable - the man whose job it was to drive the cars around to the storage area prior to work commencing. He had already been through 20 minutes of questioning with the manager before the police were called and had professed his innocence. Now he broke down and pleaded for mercy.

On the one hand, you have been robbed. Dh400 is about US$100, not a ton of money but not trivial either. And there is principle to consider as well; no one likes the idea of a wrongdoer simply getting away with it.

On the other hand, in the U.S. stealing $100 would be a misdemeanor. The offender gets a fine, maybe some community service. Jail time is not likely unless they are wanted for some other crime too. To me, that's appropriate. It's punishment commensurate with the severity of the theft. In the UAE, as we see above, that guy is getting tossed out of the country, whether he winds up in court or not. I'm not sure I would want that on my conscience.

It actually reminds me of something that happened to me and Mrs. Blog the last time we were in the World's Greatest City. While walking back to our hotel on Michigan Avenue, a commotion broke out at a sidewalk restaurant ahead of us. A young man came sprinting out of the crowd, followed by cries of, "Stop that guy! He stole my phone!" I and a couple of other people who happened to be in front of him kind of corralled him and kept him from running. The woman whose phone had been jacked ran up and yelled at him. We let go of his arms and he gave the phone back.

And then everyone kind of unconsciously took a step back as the woman continued to berate him. He apologized, she shouted one last obscenity at him, and then he jogged away.

No one stopped him. Why? Again, I think it is that feeling that maybe holding this guy and calling the police might be a bit too much. He stole something, he got caught, end of story. I'm not sure that was the right thing to do, but collectively, that's what everyone apparently decided. If it happened again--or, more important, if Mrs. Blog or I were the person whose phone had been stolen--I might do things differently and get the police involved.

But here, having seen the way the police and courts operate, I think I would be predisposed toward not allowing them to punish someone for a minor theft. Right or wrong, I think I would rather get my money back and leave it at that. Justice may or may not have been served, but my life would barely be affected by losing Dh400, and it seems disproportionate to ruin someone else's life as a result.

No comments: