Emirates Airlines quietly started its wine program in 2006 and, in the years since, it has spent an estimated $690 million to build an impressive collection of more than 3.75 million bottles of booze, including some from the world’s rarest and most exclusive vintages. It also has a shit-ton of it: Only Costco buys more Dom Perignon champagne every year than Emirates does.
The airline considers its wine selection to be a near-essential part of the in-flight experience, suggesting that first class passengers ask for a glass of champers “when [they] arrive on board,” and encouraging the business and economy classes to “let us pour you a glass whenever the mood takes you.” What the website forgets to mention is that drinking one glass onboard can have terrible consequences when you land in Dubai, the kind of consequences that can put you in a jail cell for three days—or leave you stranded in the country for a year-plus.
Ellie Holman, a Swedish-born dentist who lives in London, was reportedly detained and jailed by authorities in the United Arab Emirates, allegedly because she had a single glass of wine during her eight-hour flight. According to The Guardian, Holman—who was traveling with her four-year-old daughter—was questioned about her visa when she landed at Dubai International Airport.
A customs and immigration officer told her that her visa was invalid, and that she would be required to return to London. When she asked if she could purchase another visa, the officer asked about her alcohol consumption during the flight. She admitted that she’d had a glass of wine on the plane, and she was told that it was “illegal to drink alcohol.” (She also tried filming her interaction with the officers, but was told that wasn’t permitted either. Convenient.)
She and her daughter immediately had their passports and phones confiscated, her earrings were yanked out, and they were both taken into custody. She spent three days in jail, unable to contact her husband or the friends who were expecting her—and she said that the she and her daughter were initially denied both food and bathroom facilities.
“My little girl had to go to the toilet on the cell floor. I have never heard her cry in the same way as she did in that cell,” she said in a statement released by the group Detained in Dubai. “The food [we were given] smelled like rotting garbage and neither [my daughter] Bibi or I could face trying it. I stayed awake for the whole three days.”
The little girl has since been reunited with Holman’s partner, Gary, and has been allowed to return to London. Meanwhile, Holman is facing a year in Dubai while she waits for her day in court. So far, she says she’s already out £30,000 (US $38,290) in legal fees and lost income from her dental office. (She told The Independent that her practice is now closed, and that the couple has already burned through all of their savings.)
“The UAE maintains a deliberately misleading facade that alcohol consumption is perfectly legal for visitors,” Radha Stirling, the CEO of Detained in Dubai, told The Guardian. “It is wholly illegal for any tourist to have any level of alcohol in their blood, even if consumed in flight and provided by Dubai’s own airline. It is illegal to consume alcohol at a bar, a hotel and a restaurant, and if breathalysed, that person will be jailed.”
She’s not wrong about that “deliberately misleading” part. Le Clos, a luxury wine-and-spirits retailer, has nine locations in the Dubai Airport, allows customers to have their high-dollar bottles engraved and even offers a complimentary tasting service “on selected grapes and spirits” in the Departures area.
According to a blood test at the time of her arrest, Holman’s blood alcohol content was 0.04. That’s well below the legal limit for driving in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
MUNCHIES has reached out to both Emirates Airlines and Detained in Dubai for comment but has not yet received a response.