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 2017, the holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on 25 May and finish on 25 June. See Travelling during Ramadan
You can read more about living in the UAE here.
Importing pork products and pornography into the UAE is illegal. Videos, books, and magazines may be subject to scrutiny and may be censored.
There is zero tolerance for drugs-related offences. The penalties for trafficking, smuggling and possession of drugs (even residual amounts) 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. Some herbal highs, like Spice, are illegal in the UAE.
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 may be arrested.
Non-Muslim residents can get a liquor licence to drink alcohol at home and in licensed venues. 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 are illegal in the UAE and are likely to be confiscated at the border.
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.
Cross-dressing is illegal.
It is normal practice for hotels to take a photocopy of your passport or Emirates ID. You can’t stay in a hotel if you’re under 18 years old and not accompanied by an adult.
Swearing and making rude gestures (including online) are considered obscene acts 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.
Relationships outside marriage
All sex outside marriage is illegal, irrespective of any relationship you may have with your partner in the UK. Same-sex marriages are not recognised and all homosexual sex is illegal. If the UAE authorities become aware that you’re conducting a sexual relationship outside marriage (as recognised by them), you run the risk of prosecution, imprisonment and/or a fine and deportation. It’s against the law to live together, or to share the same hotel room, with someone of the opposite sex to whom you aren’t married or closely related.
The UAE is in many respects a tolerant society and private life is respected, although there have been some reports of individuals being punished for sexual activity outside marriage, including homosexual activity, particularly where there is any public element, or the behaviour has caused offence. This applies both to expatriate residents and to tourists.
Due to the laws on sex outside marriage, if you become pregnant outside marriage, both you and your partner could face imprisonment and/or deportation. Doctors may ask for proof of marriage during ante-natal checks. An unmarried woman who gives birth in the UAE may also encounter problems when registering the birth of the child in the UAE, and could be arrested, imprisoned or deported. To get a birth certificate from the UAE authorities, you must provide a marriage certificate and the authorities may compare the date of the marriage against the estimated date of conception.
Photography of certain government buildings and military installations isn’t 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.
Posting material (including videos and photographs) online that are critical of the UAE government, companies or individuals, or related to incidents in the UAE, or appearing to abuse/ridicule/criticise the country or its authorities may be considered a crime punishable under UAE law. There have been cases of individuals being detained, prosecuted and/or convicted for posting this type of material.
The UAE authorities announced on 7 June 2017 that showing sympathy for Qatar on social media or by any other means of communication is an offence. Offenders could be imprisoned and subject to a substantial fine.
If you’re considering undertaking or promoting fundraising or other acts of charity in (or while passing through) the UAE, bear in mind that these activities, including where conducted online and via social media, are heavily regulated. You should be fully aware of the legal requirements and seek professional advice as necessary. Non-compliance can incur criminal penalties, including heavy fines and/or imprisonment.
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 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.
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.
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.