Local laws and customs

UAE laws and customs are very different to those in the UK. Be aware of your actions to ensure that they don’t offend, especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas. There may be serious penalties for doing something that might not be illegal in the UK. You are strongly advised to familiarise yourself with, and respect local laws and customs.

In 2015, the holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on 18 June and finish on 18 July. See Travelling during Ramadan

You can read more about living in the UAE here.

Importing goods

Importing pork products and pornography into the UAE is illegal. Videos, books, and magazines may be subject to scrutiny and may be censored.

Drugs

There is zero tolerance for drugs-related offences. The penalties for drug trafficking, smuggling and possession, of even residual amounts, of drugs are severe. Sentences for drug trafficking can include the death penalty and possession of even the smallest amount of illegal drugs can lead to a minimum 4-year jail sentence. The Emirati authorities count the presence of drugs in the blood stream as possession. You should take care over the import of prescription drugs, some over-the-counter drugs and certain substances known as herbal highs, such as Spice or Space, which can include synthetic cannabinoids.

Many people stop off in UAE airports on their way to other destinations. UAE airports have excellent technology and security, so transiting passengers carrying even residual amounts of drugs are arrested.

Alcohol

Non-Muslim residents can get a liquor licence to drink alcohol at home. These licences are valid only in the Emirate that issued the licence. Residents must also get a permit to be able to drink in licensed venues.

Alcoholic drinks are served in licensed hotels and clubs, but it is a punishable offence to drink, or to be under the influence of alcohol, in public. The legal age for drinking alcohol is 18 in Abu Dhabi (although a Ministry of Tourism by-law allows hotels to serve alcohol only to those over 21), and 21 in Dubai and the Northern Emirates (except Sharjah, where drinking alcohol is illegal).

Passengers in transit through the UAE under the influence of alcohol may also be arrested.

Electronic cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes are illegal in the UAE and are likely to be confiscated at the border.

Dress code

Women should dress modestly when in public areas like shopping malls. Clothes should cover the tops of the arms and legs, and underwear should not be visible. Swimming attire should be worn only on beaches or at swimming pools.

Hotels

It is normal practice for hotels to take a photocopy of your passport or other ID. You can’t stay in a hotel if you’re under 18 years old and not accompanied by an adult.  

Offensive behaviour

Swearing or making rude gestures is considered an obscene act and offenders can be jailed or deported. Take particular care when dealing with the police and other officials.

Public displays of affection are frowned upon, and there have been several arrests for kissing in public.

Cross-dressing is illegal.

Relationships outside marriage

Sex outside marriage is illegal and if any offenders are brought to the attention of the UAE authorities they run the risk of prosecution, imprisonment and/or a fine and deportation. Same sex marriages are not recognised.

Problems will be encountered if an unmarried woman gives birth in the UAE. These problems can range from a refusal to issue a birth certificate to arrest and imprisonment. To get a birth certificate from the UAE authorities, you must provide a marriage certificate. The registration authorities may compare the date of the marriage against the date of birth.

It is against the law to live together or to share the same hotel room with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or closely related.
Homosexual relationships are illegal.

Buying property

If you want to buy property in the UAE, you should seek appropriate professional advice, as you would in the UK. A list of lawyers for Abu Dhabi and Dubai is available on the British Embassy website.

Financial crime

Financial crimes, including fraud, bouncing cheques (including post-dated and ‘security cheques’) and the non-payment of bills (including hotel bills) can often result in imprisonment and/or a fine. Bank accounts and other assets can also be frozen.
Bail is generally not available to non-residents of the UAE who are arrested for financial crimes. Those convicted will not generally be released from jail until the debt is paid or waived and they may even remain in jail after a debt has been paid if there is an outstanding sentence to be served.

Photography

Photography of certain government buildings and military installations is not allowed. Don’t photograph people without their permission. Men have been arrested for photographing women on beaches. Hobbies like bird watching and plane spotting, may be misunderstood - particularly near military sites, government buildings and airports. In February 2015, 3 British nationals were arrested while plane spotting at UAE airports. They were detained for 2 months.

Weapons and related equipment

Weapons, ammunition, body protection and related equipment (like cleaning kits, gun belts, etc), however small the quantity and whatever the purpose, all require permission before entering or transiting the UAE.

Technical equipment

Equipment like satellite phones, listening or recording devices, radio transmitters, powerful cameras or binoculars, may require a licence for use in the UAE. Seek advice from the UAE Embassy in London.