As most people already know, Dubai is one of the most technologically advanced, forward-thinking nations in the world when it comes to futuristic feats, gravity-defying architecture, ambitious, ultra-luxurious developments and even nouvelle cuisine. Yet when it comes to adhering to archaic laws (many of which a Western society would find ridiculous) the country strictly follows them and plays by the rules while systematically prosecuting anyone that violates them, with some potentially devastating consequences for tourists.
And it’s not just about a police warning ruining your holiday, it could be about a years’ long sentences ruining your life!
Now, this shouldn’t be taken out of context or mean you should stay away from Dubai nor that you will have a miserable or otherwise second-rate holiday watching your back, treading lightly or over-thinking your moves. The dos and dont’s in Dubai are quite simple and straightforward to understand and if in doubt, erring on the side of caution will help you stay out of trouble. It isn’t that complicated to play it safe and follow the rules if you know the kind of things that could cause offence or constitute a jail sentence in Dubai. And here I am to point you to the kind of things not to do in Dubai.
Some rules are common sense if you know about Muslim customs regarding dress code and acceptable female-male interactions in public (i.e. the avoidance of public displays of affection), others are considerate and show respect for the place and culture you’re in. And a few are so innocent you might never think of them as an offence but should definitely keep them in mind (like swearing or doing offensive hand gestures). In any case, there’s no need to be alarmed or excessively worried about what potential mischief you could get up to in Dubai. As long as you’re aware of the rules, it shouldn’t be too hard adhering to them, and in many cases, for minor offences authorities might turn a blind eye (though not always) as they’re keen on attracting tourists and avoiding negative public exposure.
1. Rule number one is avoiding all kinds of public displays of affection towards a member of the opposite sex, or, in the case of same-sex couples, stay well clear of physical contact with each other as the consequences could be potentially disastrous given that homosexuality in itself is prohibited in Dubai and punishable by law. The rules are very clear on this. No form of public display of affection is tolerated among adults. Of course, you can hug and kiss your children and babies in public, but not your partner, lover or friend.
Remember that scene in the Sex and the City 2 shot in Abu Dhabi where Samantha gets arrested for allegedly having sex on the beach? Well, not saying that the raunchy character wasn’t likely to have done this anywhere in the world, but this kind of scene actually happened in real life in Dubai (involving a British couple) and unlike in the film, it didn’t have a happy ending or an easy way out for those involved. So, remember, no kissing (especially not on the lips and forget about snogging or any form of groping entirely) and no hugging in public places. Limit contact to light hand-holding (acceptable for married couples) and you won’t attract unwanted attention.
2. Don’t flash a lot of skin outside pools or beaches. When walking around your hotel or resort grounds it’s perfectly acceptable and even expected that you will wear shorts, cropped or tank tops baring the shoulders and beachwear. But outside the beach and beyond the confines of your hotel you should limit the amount of skin on show. In beachfront areas like The Walk shorts are acceptable as long as they cover your buttocks appropriately (no bum cheeks on show please, not the slightest bit of them) and bikinis shouldn’t be excessively revealing or provocative.
Malls have signs with clear guidelines as to what’s acceptable, the main rule being that shoulders and knees should be covered, yet these rules are rarely enforced and while security guards sometimes hand out informative leaflets to those breaking the dress code, it isn’t as strict as other public places so as not to deter international shoppers. But if you are aware of local sensitivities and are a conscious traveller who cares about the impact your visit has on locals, you should really play by the rules and dress appropriately. And, outside of malls, you should be more careful when choosing your attire for walking out and about in the city, especially in more conservative areas like the old town. Never forget that modesty is the best policy when it comes to dressing in Dubai.
3. Don’t ever contemplate cross-dressing in public, not even slightly, not even as a half-joke. Cross-dressing is taken as a serious offence that you could see you spend some time behind bars. If you’re lucky you’ll walk away with a hefty fine (a British shopper was prosecuted and ultimately fined 5,000 AED - approximately £1,060 - for allegedly wearing make-up and donning woman clothes at Dubai Mall) and in the worst case scenario you could end in jail and serve anywhere between six months to a year.
4. Don’t get drunk in public. It’s fine to make the most of happy hour at designated bars and pubs inside hotels and resorts that cater mostly to tourists but if you’re feeling the least bit tipsy or intoxicated, then wandering around the streets of Dubai is a big no-no and ultimately a punishable offence that will get you arrested. A word of caution - even tipsy passengers transiting through Dubai’s airport can get arrested, so don’t risk it! Keep the drunkenness and related disruptive behaviour to the interiors of venues licensed to sell alcohol. And remember, the legal age for drinking in Dubai is 21 and 18 in Abu Dhabi.
5. Mind where you aim your camera lens at. Of course, it is expected that you’ll take endless selfies of landmarks like the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and similar futuristic, awe-inspiring and mind-bending constructions. Just be careful of not photographing restricted areas or government buildings like a 70-year-old American tourist did back in 2014 leading to him facing charges. Taking photos in restricted areas of the UAE can land you in prison for one to three months or incur a fine of up to 5,000 AED (around £1,000). So, no picture-taking of palaces, military areas courts, government buildings and (apparently) certain bridges. Also, do make sure you’re not photographing anyone that hasn’t expressed their consent to be in the shot, as this is illegal and if reported could have you convicted for some jail time. While we’re on that subject remember that any form of public protest is illegal in Dubai, so no holding of posters, banners or public call-to-action of any kind.
6. Don’t bring drugs and check what medicines you are allowed to take to Dubai. And, please don’t even think about consuming any form of illegal narcotics prior to or during your stay in Dubai. Whilst this common sense advice applies to virtually any country around the world, in Dubai even possession of the tiniest trace of illicit drugs could land you in jail. Back in 2008, a British tourist was sentenced to four years in jail after customs officers found traces of cannabis stuck on his shoe, weighing just 0.003g! Although he was reportedly freed a few weeks later, it’s really not worth the risk! Check which medicines are safe to bring as most prescription drugs are routinely confiscated and can result in up to four years in prison. Also, anything containing codeine is illegal in Dubai, so leave the Nurofen Plus behind and don’t even think about any form of illegal drug-taking. Of any sort. At all! Seriously!
7. Mind your tongue…and your fingers! No form of cursing, swearing or making obscene gestures is permitted in Dubai. You might think that sticking the middle finger is an innocuous, quite innocent although offensive, rude gesture, but in Dubai, it is against the law and you will be arrested for it. Of all things, you really don’t want to be convicted for public indecency and spend up to six months in jail. This is what happened to a British IT consultant who did an obscene hand gesture to a driver who was tailgating his car. When it comes to verbal abuse, there are strict laws in place regarding swearing too, even in cybernetic exchanges. A Dubai court issued a local man with a £1,000 fine for swearing at another man on Whatsapp. I kid you not! Whatever you do, hold your tongue and stay well clear of the F-word in Dubai. Count to ten and just breathe, you’re on holiday, after all, no need to get worked up over little things, especially when it could land you in a far worse situation.
8. Never ever leave a bill unpaid or write a cheque that can bounce. The global hunt for a woman whose eight-year-old cheque (yes, really, they hunted her for 8 years!) had bounced in Dubai made headlines around the world once, so make sure you have enough on your account to back up any cheques you write. The woman in question was eventually tracked down in Italy and maintained on house arrest after questioning while authorities decided whether to allow extradition for trial. So, this is no joking matter, bring enough cash or plastic to cover your bills in Dubai. And please double-check that you’re not accidentally bringing fake notes to the UAE, as a Scottish holidaymaker faced a year in prison after handing over a fake £20 note. He was eventually released but his holiday was ruined after being detained for 12 hours while police checked his hotel room.
9. Don’t dance in public. It’s OK to let the music take hold of your body in licensed Dubai nightclubs and dance venues, but dancing in the street or in any other public space like malls or the beach is considered a disruptive activity punishable by law. It can get you arrested, so stick to the clubs and bars.
10. Don’t bring E-cigarettes and be careful of where you light up. Importing vaping devices and e-cigarettes into Dubai is considered illegal and while many tourists get away with bringing them in their checked-in luggage, there’s always the risk of having them confiscated and possibly incurring a fine. In March 2018 the UAE initiated a crackdown on electronic smoking devices, confiscating them from shops and considering a strict ban on all imports. If you do bring them you must be aware that you’re only allowed to use them in designated smoking spaces as regular cigarette smokers and shisha users would do. You can smoke standard cigarettes on the street, as long as you don’t puff away in someone’s face or near children.
11. Avoid using your left hand. Bad news for lefties. While this is just courtesy and respect for local customs and not a strict law, you might want to be aware of this common faux pas. In Muslim cultures, the left hand is traditionally used for body hygiene (i.e. wiping after using the toilet and so on). Don’t greet locals with a left-handed handshake or hand something to someone with your left hand, especially not food! Most definitely refrain from eating finger food with your left hand! Using cutlery you’re fine using either hand and in modern times Muslim cultures have started to be more tolerant of lefties. Apparently drinking with your left hand is OK and more widely acceptable (God knows why!).
12. Don’t eat or drink in public before dusk during Ramadan. Just don’t do it anywhere outside of your hotel and don’t even attempt to sneak away food in a car or taxi. It’s not only extremely disrespectful and insensitive but it could also get you arrested or heavily fined. And remember that all the rules just mentioned above take even more force during this sacred holiday, where modesty, austerity and self-discipline form the obligatory code of conduct.
13. Don’t post anything anti-UAE on social media. Err on the side of caution and avoid berating the national government during your time there. After Qatar’s regional blockade you will be arrested and convicted if you post anything in support of that nation or anti-UAE. If you have anything negative to say about Dubai, wait until you get home to get it off your chest.
14. Don’t promote a charity without governmental authorisation. This one may sound like an odd one but it’s true. While it may be hard for foreigners to believe, promoting any kind of charity without express government permission could result in jail time. It has happened to residents who have been deported after unknowingly posting something on social media to raise awareness about their own charities. You’re on holiday, leave the promotion work at home!
15. Don’t report a rape to local authorities. Head to your country’s embassy instead and have a lawyer on standby before seeking justice locally. In the unlikely event that you find yourself to be the victim of rape in Dubai or anywhere in the UAE, reporting it to local authorities could lead to your own arrest as they will regard you as engaging in extramarital sex, regardless of the lack of consent. You don’t have to stay silent as rapists can be jailed and deported in Dubai, just whatever you do don’t notify local authorities before consulting your lawyer and seeking advice from your embassy first.
Should you be concerned?
Before you rush to cancel your Dubai holiday plans, let me reassure you that there’s no cause for alarm and most Dubai visits go without a glitch. It just doesn’t hurt to know the rules and make sure you stay firmly on the side of the law.
You should also note, that in most cases prosecuted tourists have been freed in the end after paying hefty fines (a British man accused of brushing another man on the hip in a club forked out £32,000 in legal fees alone) and charges end up being dropped, although some take longer than others. If you cause a serious offence you can expect to be deported but often you’ll have to face trial first, not fun and not cheap.
Sometimes in Dubai, you will spot other foreign couples lightly kissing in public (by which I mean a peck on the cheek!) and no one will raise an eyebrow. But remember that rules are rules, and just because no one pointed at the couple, doesn’t mean that a disgusted local won’t point at you with an accusative finger if you do it. More often than not, they turn a blind eye on inappropriate tourist behaviour but please, don’t leave it to chance.
Tourists getting arrested in Dubai is not that common but it does happen, and as it stands British holidaymakers are the most likely to get arrested in Dubai when compared to any other country (according to the Foreign Office). On most occasions, authorities will overlook some foreigners not dressing appropriately. I know first-hand as the first time I went to Dubai I was shocked to see how little some tourists cared for local customs and wore super short shorts, tight vests or tops with spaghetti straps and on rarer occasions midriff-baring T-shirts, all within malls that had very clear signs illustrating what was considered an acceptable dress code. I didn’t see any authorities or security staff bat an eyelid, but still, it put me off that people had so little consideration for a foreign culture. Inside a mall it’s not hot anyway, they have air-conditioning cranked up to full blast. So, no excuses really. I made the effort to always wear long or cropped trousers and flowy skirts. It’s not like you’re completely limited in what you can wear. It’s really not that hard to comply.
In the beach or places like The Walk people are more expected to wear lighter, shorter garments because of the heat and that’s the only place in Dubai where I wore shorts and a spaghetti strap top as did most tourists around me.
Regardless of this cautionary list of don’ts, there is no reason you should be put yo off a potentially amazing Dubai holiday that more often than not and for most travellers goes without a single incident. After all, in Dubai, they certainly know how to pamper. Just remember to stay out of trouble, stay safe and you’ll have the most special memories of this wondrous place.