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A US Army veteran has been detained in Dubai for 5 years because his ex-employer says he owes $100,000: 'I'm at the end of my life'

Katie Balevic   

A US Army veteran has been detained in Dubai for 5 years because his ex-employer says he owes $100,000: 'I'm at the end of my life'
  • A US veteran detained near Dubai for five years is desperate to return home to Wisconsin.
  • But a convoluted financial dispute prevents Robert Dobbs, 55, from leaving the country.

An American veteran detained in the United Arab Emirates for more than five years on what he calls bogus charges says he's losing hope that he'll ever return home to his family.

Local authorities are preventing Robert Dobbs, 55, from either leaving the UAE or securing a new work visa. He told Insider he felt "stuck like a hamster on a wheel," reliving the same day over and over again.

"People want to forget about it," said Dobbs, who served eight years in the US Army. "It can't be shrugged off. I'm a human being."

Dobbs' plight stems from a disagreement over money with a former employer, which led to a legal case he says was retaliatory and unfounded. He says he now lives in fear of local authorities, who have had an outstanding warrant for his arrest for three years.

Without being able to leave the country or work legally, Dobbs, a father of five children in a blended family, has relied on his loved ones and worked odd jobs under the table to sustain himself.

Dobbs has been lobbying for his release through Detained in Dubai, an organization that helps foreign travelers who have issues with law enforcement or the court system in the UAE. Some of those travelers have been the victims of well-known scams in the country, Insider has previously reported.

A Houston woman was detained in Dubai, for instance, in April after car-rental employees claimed she screamed at them, violating a broadly defined law against offensive behavior in the UAE. As she tried to resolve the claim, her accusers demanded thousands of dollars to drop the case.

She was eventually allowed to fly home in early August after agreeing to pay more than $1,000 to local police to lift the travel ban against her.

The dispute at the center of Dobbs' case revolves around his former employer, a private school in Sharjah, a city about 20 miles outside of Dubai. Dobbs worked there for four years, and it's where four of his five children attended school.

Dobbs said the school withheld his end-of-service benefit — a bonus in the UAE for employees who complete a term of employment — after his contract ended. He also said the school refused to release him from his work visa, which was tied to his employment at the school.

In 2018, Dobbs took the school to court, which ruled in his favor, forcing the school to pay him his benefit, according to court documents seen by Insider.

The school quickly responded by filing a civil suit against Dobbs that claimed he owed them tuition for his children who attended the school, which amounted to about $100,000, according to Detained in Dubai.

Though he said the claim was unfounded, Dobbs missed his opportunity to make that argument. The hearing took place just as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a stop, and Dobbs said he was never informed of the court date. While he has since tried to appeal to local officials, the case remains closed, he said.

When reached for comment by Insider, the school maintained that Dobbs still owed them the tuition money.

"I've been stuck in this open-air prison for five years, three-and-a-half years away from my family," Dobbs, who hails from Wisconsin, said in a press release. "I am a veteran with PTSD as well. I'm at the end of my life, basically."

Radha Stirling, a UK-based legal advocate and CEO of Detained in Dubai, said Dobbs had been jailed dozens of times and even beaten by local law enforcement. She said his situation was growing increasingly dire.

"Robert has no legal avenue to appeal or to show evidence to the court that he does not owe the money," Stirling said in a press release. "He was not even told there was a court date and was unable to defend himself. US diplomats must work with UAE authorities to resolve this miscarriage of justice."

Dobbs has been in contact with Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and has requested assistance from the US Department of State. Baldwin's office declined to comment on the record for this story.

"If diplomatic efforts are not made, the veteran will likely die in Dubai," Stirling said.

A spokesperson from the US Embassy in the UAE said they were limited in what they could say on specific cases but noted the country's strict exit controls, which are outlined on the State Department's website: "Travelers both departing the UAE and transiting will be barred from exiting the UAE if there are any criminal or civil legal cases against them. Travelers have been arrested at the airport and have had their passports seized due to outstanding financial cases, unsettled legal disputes, and late credit card payments, including for cases that were previously unknown to the traveler."

A family missing him from an ocean away

Dobbs moved his family to the UAE more than a decade ago. But as his legal situation grew more opaque and a global pandemic loomed, he sent his wife and children home to the US.

"It was pretty stressful when we came here. We had nothing. We didn't know anything about the country," Dobbs' stepdaughter, who is 23 and had spent half her life in the UAE when she moved to the US, told Insider. "So our dad, he guided us, and we would just talk to him on the phone and miss him badly."

Dobbs' stepdaughters spoke about his detention on the condition of anonymity due to privacy concerns.

Since his family left in 2020, his wife has only been able to visit twice. Even then, it's a risk, Dobbs said. He said on her most recent visit, he noticed a local police officer following them.

"I'm looking over my shoulder all the time," Dobbs said. "That's one thing I think that really gets you — after a point — is that hypervigilance."

Dobbs says he has grown desperate to get home to his family. His children say they are also losing hope — and patience. His homecoming, his stepdaughter says, rests on the willingness of US diplomats to take action.

"My stepdad has reached out to a lot of people who are in power. They have let him down, as well," another one of his stepdaughters, 20, said. "He was a veteran, so he served for his own country, and the country's not helping him out to come back to his own country."

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