When Cultural Faux Pas and Inadvertent Rule-Breaking Lead to Detention


US citizen Shezanne Cassim and four other men are currently being detained in United Arab Emirates for making a satirical film about a fictional martial arts school in Satwa neighborhood of Dubai.  The 20-minute film, which follows the format of shows like Fight Quest and Human Weapon begins with the film makers visiting the fictional “Satwa Combat School” and meeting the instructor Saloom Snake to learn about his system.  A link to the New York Times article and the You Tube video is here:


Dubai authorities clearly didn’t think the film was funny and Cassim and his cohorts are facing charges of threatening national security and endangering public order.  While this may seem strange to many western observers, this incident really illustrates the risk of not knowing or unintentionally violating local rules.  This problem is particularly acute in locations where there may be mixed messages.  There is the Dubai that is known for its incredible shopping malls, indoor skiing, the Palm Jumeirah and its upscale nightclubs and bars.  Many visitors and expatriates have no issue in Dubai and most don’t even feel like they are in the Middle East.  This can create a dangerous complacency.  While the UAE is in no way as conservative as Saudi Arabia, there are conservative elements there and laws that may have been unwittingly violated can be enforced strictly.

This is true in many locations around the world.  Local laws and cultural mores may be very different from what western travelers and expatriates are accustomed to in their home countries of even in foreign countries that are more like their own.  Many of us have grown up in societies where questioning authority was completely permissible and often the norm.  This is not the case in many countries.  Insulting the king is a criminal offense in Morocco and Thailand for example.

Additionally actions you take and things you possess may also result in detention by local authorities.  Travelers in the developing world and in security-conscious countries need to be very careful about what they photograph.  One classic example is taking pictures at the airport, which will get you arrested in some countries or at least get the camera confiscated.  The same is true for photographing other critical infrastructure like ports, bridges, etc. as well government buildings, police & military personnel and political activity.  Carry a satellite phone is prohibited in some countries, requires special licensing in others and will draw unwanted attention in others.  This is not to say you should never carry one but check local laws and weigh the need before traveling.  We have two other articles that further address this issue:  Blending in and the Gray Man (https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/?s=gray+man) and Sanitize Yourself for Travel (https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/sanitize-yourself-for-travel).

Other activities like promoted your religious beliefs or taking part in local political activities such as demonstrations and protests can get you arrested and detained.  Sometimes the enforcement come at the hands of local citizens and not the authorities, especially if the activity is not technically illegal.


Cultural Awareness — the Security Dimension

Being culturally aware is important for anyone traveling abroad or conducting international business.  It’s important to recognize that not everyone around the world sees things the way we do and understanding others’ perspectives and customs will allow us to better relate and avoid inadvertently offending someone.

Noted cultural trainer Dean Foster recently wrote a piece about doing business in Brazil where he discusses “why the okay sign is not okay in Brazil” (if signifies an orifice).  It’s an excellent example of a gesture that is perfectly acceptable in the US but considered very obscene or offensive in Brazil.

The security dimension of cultural awareness is that failing to be culturally aware can put you in a potentially dangerous situation if your behavior is offensive to others.  No where is this more true than in male – female interaction.  Activity that might be perfectly acceptable in western countries may invite confrontation and even violence.  For example a man “checking out” or flirting with a woman in some of the more conservative Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia may provoke a violent response from the woman’s male family members or even other male members of the society who observe it.  Likewise a woman traveling alone and wearing suitably fashionable clothes may be perceived of as promiscuous and may attract attention and unwanted sexual advances.

Public identification of your nationality may also attract unwanted attention as well.  It’s not only Americans who carry a stigma in certain countries.  At one time being Canadian was considered to be relatively harmless but with the active role Canada had taken in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance  Force (ISAF) this is no longer true.  Likewise Scandinavians were once a “safe” nationality to be but after the controversial cartoons depicting Mohamed this has changed and Scandinavians are mire susceptible to being targeted.  French nationals have been targeted in Cote D’Ivoire and some other African countries.  For these reasons it’s important to adopt the persona of the “Gray Man” as we have discussed previously.

It’s important to understand that cultural awareness is important and the implications can be greater than just hurting somebody’s feelings or losing some business deal.  Failure to understand the local culture in the most extreme cases can get you beaten, stabbed or arrested.

Not in Kansas anymore…

Secure area of Basra, Iraq Airport

One of the greatest challenges in protecting a global workforce and training travelers and personnel undertaking overseas assignments is getting them to understand that the individual rights they enjoy in their home country don’t
travel with them overseas.  This is particularly true of Americans who are imbued from an early age with the concept of individual freedoms and civil rights.  These are noble qualities that are unfortunately absent in much of the world.

When Americans and other citizens of western democracies travel abroad for the most part their individual rights do not travel with them.  In a foreign country you are subject to local laws whether you agree with them or not
and if you break them there is very little your embassy can do to assist you.  Concepts like innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, fair and speedy trial and so forth are alien in many foreign countries.  The embassy or consulate may be able to assist with finding you legal representation and will visit you to check on your health and well being but will likely be powerless to
assist you beyond that.  You could languish for weeks or months in confinement before even seeing a judge.  This is more a concerning in developing nations and less so in other democracies – although Amanda Knox who was tried for murder in Italy would probably disagree with that statement.  Regardless of your opinion of Knox’s innocence or guilt and although she was ultimately released few would say she got a fair trial or fair treatment in the Italian legal system.

We touched on this briefly before in our discussion about personal security myths but it is well worth addressing in greater detail.  It is such a common and pervasive vulnerability – especially with novice travelers that it warrants closer examination.

It’s important to know about the local laws and social mores of the place where you are visiting, working or
living.  This means understanding that some behavior and activities that are perfectly legal and acceptable at home may be illegal in the country where you are located.  Even if you are not technically breaking a law you may be violating a social taboo or custom that can cause problems for you.  Many people use language “respect for the local culture”.  I don’t like this particular verbiage as it implies a level of agreement or acceptance of the particular culture.  That culture may include denying women the right to an education and other basic rights, use of child soldiers, capital punishment for adultery and other things that are reprehensible.  I don’t think these things need to be “respected” but we do need to be aware of their place in the local landscape and
our inability to change them.

For your own safety and self preservation though you do need to be aware of potential pitfalls.  I also don’t want to overstate the problem and give the impression that foreign jails are full of innocent Americans and other westerners.  Let’s be clear: a large number of the western citizens imprisoned overseas are in jail for drug offenses and the majority are guilty.  They may be serving sentences or under conditions that seem harsh by our standards but most are guilty.  That said there are people detained for crimes that would not be considered illegal in most western democracies.

Here are some areas that can cause you to inadvertently break local laws and run afoul of local authorities.  I have intentionally
omitted blatant crimes that are illegal almost everywhere like drug trafficking.  Obviously there is a lot of variation from country to country:

  • Involvement in local politics:  Becoming involved in local politics by supporting one political party or another, advocating democracy and things of that nature are likely to draw unwanted attention from local police and security forces as well as militias and other informal groups supporting the ruling or opposition party.  I recognize that some non-governmental
    organizations (NGOs) have this specific type of activity as their mission.  In those cases its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
  • Proselytizing: Spreading religious messages, holding religious services and attempting to convert local people is considered criminal in many countries – in particular, but not exclusively in the Muslim world.  Again – I recognize this is the
    specific mission of many faith-based groups.  As with NGOs mentioned above  its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
  • Questionable business ventures and partners:  In the discussion on dealing with local partners we covered this topic fairly well.  Suffice to say getting involved with questionable business dealings and partners can create local legal troubles for you.  Also
    unscrupulous local partners, customers or vendors can use the local legal system to their advantage to gain leverage in business disputes.
  • Photographing critical infrastructure and government buildings:  Behavior that could be mistaken for intelligence gathering may cause you to be arrested and charged with espionage.  Taking pictures or airports, military bases, presidential residences, government buildings and the like can get you into a great deal of trouble.  This is especially true in the coup-prone countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.  In fairness to those governments that type of activity can be mistaken for reconnaissance.  Foreigners arrested, imprisoned and horribly tortured in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 were in fact an advance team planning to overthrow the
    ruler of that country.
  • Adoption:  Adoption in some foreign countries can be a perilous process if not done correctly and in coordination with reputable
    organizations.  Some governments have viewed adoption efforts as human trafficking.  In one recent case in West Africa an American couple was detained on suspicion of human trafficking and were only released after high level diplomatic involvement.
  • Public Drunkenness:  In a number of countries in the Middle East — even some where alcohol is permitted public drunkenness is a serious crime.
  • Religious/Social Infractions:  These include things such as inappropriate dress, public displays of affection, adultery, possession
    of literature or media deemed “pornography” by local standards.  Several Gulf countries impose fines and even confinement for Ramadan offenses (even by foreigners/non-Muslims).

Its important to keep in mind that when in a foreign country you are subject to its laws and behave accordingly.

Sanitize Yourself for Travel


Shanghai, China — Data on computers and other devices is vulnerable

You don’t need to cut the tags out of your clothes but before traveling abroad its important to think about things that you are carrying, either on your person, in your bags or electronically in your devices that may cause trouble for you with foreign authorities.  In the earlier post on being the gray man and blending in we discussed clothing.  This time we will focus more on the types of things that you might be carrying that may cause unnecessary problems.  I am not suggesting that you never carry these types of things when you travel – only that you give it some consideration in the context of your trip.

Here are some categories to consider:

  • Military or government ID.  If you are a reservist, a government contractor or otherwise have some type of government ID you may want to leave it at home if you are traveling on private sector business.  Obviously this doesn’t apply if you are going to need the ID on your trip.


  • Reading material, videos and other media that might be considered offensive in the country you are traveling to.  This is particularly true in some of the more conservative Islamic countries.


  • Military style clothing such as camouflage or 5.11 clothing.  In many developing nations police and military authorities tend to view military clothing negatively and may not understand that you are wearing for durability, comfort, etc.


  • Police or military paraphernalia such as body armor, handcuffs, batons, magazines, shell casings, etc.  Even countries like United Arab Emirates have issues with this and have detained travelers with this sort of gear in their luggage.


  • Political material and media that may be offensive to the host government or contrary to its policies.


  • Satellite phones and GPS units.  These are viewed with suspicion – and in some places outright illegal – particularly in countries with a history of coups, political instability or foreign intervention.


  • Computers and other devices with encryption software loaded on them.   In some countries this is illegal and in some others while legal it may draw unnecessary scrutiny.


  • Sensitive company information.  It goes without saying that you should limit the amount of proprietary information you carry with you when traveling abroad.  Foreign governments can and sometimes will gain access to this information if they choose to examine your computer and other devices as part of a security or customs check on arrival or departure.  In some cases they may also surreptitiously access it during your stay.


  • Sensitive personal information.  You want to be cautious about carrying sensitive personal information like banking and financial information, personal contact information and the like that may be compromised.


  • Medications.  Be aware of what medications can be legally carrier into your destination and any restrictions that may exist such as the need for a prescription, prior approval from the host country Ministry of Health, etc.


  • Passport Stamps and Visas.  The classic example if the presence of an Israeli stamp in your passport barring you from entry in some Arab and Muslim countries.  If you have passport entries that might be problematic at your destination country then consider getting a new passport in advance.  DO NOT tear pages or visas out of your passport.  This is a crime many places and will cause you serious problems if detected.

The above guidelines are very situationally dependent — they are going to vary widely from country-to-country and situation-to-situation.  I don’t want to appear to be saying you need to follow these for every trip.  They are however things to consider, especially if travel takes you to places where the government closely scrutinizes visitors.

Blending in and the “Gray Man”

A good point was brought up in a comment after the last post about dressing down and trying to blend in when abroad. Its an important topic that deserves a little attention.

For Westerners and Americans in particular our ability to blend in will be very dependent on the society we are in.  In many cases we may not really be able to blend in but we can avoid unnecessarily standing out.  This means leaving the cowboy hats,  sports jerseys, Oakley sunglasses, etc. at home.  Likewise the t-shirts with American flags and patriotic slogans.

To truly blend in is difficult — even if you are the same race or ethnicity as the host population.  In the Philippines as an example, native Filipinos can usually readily identify Balikbayan – Filipinos who have lived abroad for years and then returned to the Philippines.  These Balikbayan are often targeted for robbery due to their perceived afluence.

Interestingly I have heard – but cannot verify – that in Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants can distinguish each other on the street by appearance.

Therefore the goal of truly blending in may be out of reach in many cases.  Its probably better to be the “gray man” and do nothing and wear nothing that will unduly draw attention to yourself or invite interest.
You should be free of any obvious national or political indentifiers, not wear conspicuous jewelry or clothing, not appear too rich or too poor, etc.  While you might not want to look like a high profile businessman you also might not want to appear like a backpacker either.

Contrary to popular perception, backpackers and similar low budget travelers are targeted for crimes regularly.  This is in part because they are frequently carrying all their money and other valuables with them all the time and may actually be carrying more cash than the rich businessman who is relying on credit cards and local representatives to cover his expenses.

Additionally, backpackers and other poorly dressed travelers may draw unwanted attention from the local police and security forces not to mention immigration and customs personnel at the airport.  This is especially true in developing countries.

Therefore the best approach may be the middle ground.  Not too rich, not too poor.  Not clearly identifiable as any particular nationality.  While the gray man (or gray woman) may not truly blend in – he or she may draw the least amount of attention and sometimes that is the best you can do.

8 Common Myths About Travel & Personal Security

Myth #1:  It can’t happen to me.

This is perhaps less a myth and more a mindset.  Crime victims, even those living in violent places with friends and relatives that have been victims of crime still sometimes hold on to the mindset that it can’t happen to them.  Not only does this usually mean the person has taken little or no proactive measures to protect themselves but it also significantly contributes to a delayed reaction time because the person is in a state of denial and when events begin to unfold they can’t process what is happening and respond quickly enough.

Myth #2:  If it does happen it was destined to happen or it was fate and there is nothing I can do about it.

This is the fatalistic attitude mentioned earlier.  There is a phrase for it in Arabic:  “Insh’Allah” — if God wills it.  While it’s true that you can do everything right and still become a victim due to uncontrollable circumstances more often than not you can take significant measures to avoid or deter a problem or at a minimum recognize it more rapidly and take appropriate responsive action.

Myth #3:  Victims are selected at random and most crime is spontaneous.

Victims are almost always selected and there is almost always some element of planning involved in any crime.  Its true the victim selection and planning may occur very rapidly but it still occurs.  The only really exception to this is situations involving civil unrest, rioting and other types of violence that occurs on a larger scale where particular victims may truly be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Myth #4:  Armed security or carrying weapons is always better than unarmed security.

This comes down to training whether it’s the individual arming themselves or employing an armed security detail in a high threat environment or in response to a specific threat.  Armed security definitely has its place and is appropriate under certain conditions.  A person arming themselves but not getting training in how and when to employ their weapon in a tactical manner and under stress may actually increase their risk rather than reduce it.  Likewise employing armed personnel who are not well trained and don’t handle their weapons safely (as is often the case in the developing world) may also increase risk.

Myth #5:  You should always comply with an attacker’s demands.

While this is overwhelmingly true in the case of property crimes it is much more ambiguous and situational when it comes to any personal crime.  If your assailant just wants your wallet or watch you should surrender it.  If the assailant becomes physically abusive, tries to restrain you or tries to move you from the area then there are a number of factors that must be considered very rapidly and an individual decision must be made.

Myth #6:  You should never let the attacker move you from the first crime scene.

This is also overwhelmingly true in the US and most of the developed world.  The theory – which is fundamentally sound – is that if the crime is an economic crime the attacker will be satisfied with your property and will leave.  If the attacker wants to move you to a place where he can control you – also known as crime scene two – then he likely intends to subject you to some type of torture or sadistic treatment and you are far better off resisting at crime scene one.  In many developing countries where kidnap for ransom and express kidnapping are a regular occurrence it is not necessarily true.  In those situations it may well be an economically motivated crime and you may have a better chance complying with the kidnappers and very likely being released upon the payment of a ransom or upon taking money out of an ATM machine in the case of an express kidnapping.  There is no right answer for every situation and for every person.  You need to look at crime trends in the environment you are in and make decisions based on the situation you find yourself in.

Myth #7:  Local inhabitants know the security situation best and can give good guidance.

While local contacts are very valuable when gathering information about the security situation in the location where you are or will be traveling they should not be the sole source of this information and their input should not be accepted as gospel.  Frequently locals do not know the security situation that well at all unless they are in a capacity where they deal with security issues or incidents regularly and often the information they have is anecdotal or based on gossip and urban myth.  It’s also important to consider that locals may have a very different threshold of what is normal or acceptable in terms of levels of crime, violence or terrorist threat.  They may be accustomed to a level of violence, unrest or uncertainty in their society that is totally different from what you are used to.  Also for cultural reasons or in some cases personal reasons (in particular when there is a business connection to the local contact) they may intentionally understate or misrepresent the threat level.  Use local contacts and sources to gather information but view their input with a critical eye and in the context of information derived from other sources.

Myth #8:  Most personal security is just common sense.

While it’s fair to say that many personal security measures may appear obvious – common sense means different things to different people and arguably common sense is not all that common.  There is also a lot to be studied and learned in terms of criminal practices and methods that will enhance your security and goes beyond what is “common sense”.

Things you might not want to bring when traveling

There are things that are considered harmless in much of the world that can cause problems in certain countries or regions of the world.  You can bring many of these items on most trips you might take but its important to research the location you are going to prior to your travel to determine if what you are carrying might be a concern.

  • Reading material or other media such as CDs, DVDs, etc. that might be considered pornographic in certain socially conservative countries – particularly areas of the Middle East and South Asia.  This may include things like fashion magazines that would be perfectly acceptable in much of the world.
  • Reading material or other media that has a political orientation or that is critical of the government of the country where you are traveling.
  • Reading material or other media of a religious nature to include Bibles that may make it appear you are proselytizing your religion.
  • Military, police or security equipment or uniforms to include camouflage clothing or other items of a military appearance.
  • Ammunition to include spent shell casings and inert devices.
  • Reading material or other media related to military training.
  • Medicines — you should research local laws before traveling.  Some medecines that are over-the-counter in the US require a prescription overseas.  Additionally some countries prohibited bringing in prescription medication even with a prescription unless it has been previously approved in writing by their ministry of health.  As an exampe United Arab Emirates has a list of about 374 banned medications.
  • Encryption software on your computer or mobile phone is prohibited in some countries.  In others it is permitted but only with a special license from the host government.

The best way to avoid running afoul of local laws is to research the topic as thoroughly as possible before departing on your trip.