Local Laws, Customs, Social Etiquettes in UAE

The UAE is a modern country that welcomes visitors from around the world. Courtesy and hospitality are important virtues in the UAE; visitors will enjoy the friendliness and warm welcome provided by locals.

UAE laws and customs are probably very different from those in your home country. 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 your home country. You are strongly advised to familiarise yourself with and respect local laws and customs.

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 drug-related offenses. 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 bloodstream 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.

Some skincare products and E-cigarette refills may contain ingredients that are illegal in the UAE such as CBD oil or carrying the commonly used south asian cooking ingredient popeye seeds is illegal. If found in possession of such products, they will be confiscated and you may face criminal charges. A list of narcotic, psychotropic and controlled drugs where this rule applies, allowed quantities and documents to present can be found on the UAE Ministry of Health website

Alcohol

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

In Dubai, tourists are able to obtain a temporary liquor license for the duration of a month from the two official liquor distributors in Dubai. Tourists will be provided with a code of conduct document and will be asked to confirm they understand rules and regulations in relation to purchasing, transporting and consuming liquor in Dubai. This license is only for use in the Emirate where it is issued.

Liquor licences are not available to non-residents in the other Emirates, but it is possible for tourists and visitors to buy and drink alcohol in licensed venues, such as hotels, restaurants and clubs. However, you should be aware that it is a punishable offense under UAE law to drink or be under the influence of alcohol in public. Foreign nationals have been arrested and charged under this law, often in cases where they have come to the attention of the police for a related offence or matter, such as disorderly or offensive behaviour.

Generally, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 18 in Abu Dhabi, but a Ministry of Tourism by-law prevents hotels from serving alcohol to those under the age of 21. In Dubai and all other emirates besides Sharjah, the drinking age is 21. Drinking alcohol in Sharjah is illegal.

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

Dress Code

Visitors to the UAE should dress modestly, particularly in conservative areas and public places like shopping malls.

Clothing should not be transparent, indecently exposing parts of the body or displaying offensive pictures or slogans and underwear should not be visible.

Both men and women might feel more comfortable wearing loose-fitting clothes that cover shoulders, arms and legs.

Women traveling in the UAE are not expected to cover their heads or wear traditional Muslim attire.

When visiting a mosque, women will be asked to respect the Muslim tradition and wear an abaya and cover their heads. Often, these would be provided at the mosque.

Any form of nudity is strictly forbidden; including topless sunbathing. Swimwear should not be worn in any other area outside the beach, water parks or swimming pools.

Emiratis dress conservatively in traditional dress and can be offended when people dress inappropriately or not in accordance with Islamic values.

Cross-dressing is illegal.

Hotels

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.

Offensive Behaviour

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 your home country. If the UAE authorities become aware that you’re conducting a sexual relationship outside marriage (as recognized 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.

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.

Same-sex relationships

All homosexual sex is illegal and same-sex marriages are not recognized.

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 homosexual activity and/or sexual activity outside marriage, particularly where there is any public element, or the behavior has caused offense. This applies both to expatriate residents and to tourists.

LGBTQ rights do not exist and are considered illegal, kindly take necessary precautions to avoid legal prosecution as well as social persecution.

Photography / Social Media

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.

Posting material (including videos and photographs) online that is critical of the UAE government, companies or individuals, or related to incidents in the UAE, or appearing to abuse/ridicule/criticize the country or its authorities, or that is culturally insensitive, 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.

Showing sympathy for recognized enemy countries on social media or by any other means of communication is an offense. Offenders could be imprisoned and subject to a substantial fine.

Fundraising / Charitable Acts

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.

Buying Property

If you want to buy property in the UAE, you should seek appropriate professional advice, as you would in your home country.

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.

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 license for use in the UAE. Seek advice from the UAE Embassy in your home country.

Food

If you are sharing a meal with your host, accept food and refreshments before moving on to matters of business.

If you are about to eat, it is considered polite to offer food. The offer might be politely declined, but it is important to extend the offer.

It is customary to accept food and drink with your right hand; this is also the hand you should eat with. The act of food sharing is considered as an expression of friendship in Arab countries.

Meetings

If you are invited to a majlis, remove your shoes at the entrance. Males and females will probably be escorted to different sections.

It is important to stand up for new guests and older or higher-ranking people.

When greeting a member of the opposite gender who is Muslim, do not offer to shake hands unless they extend their hand first. Both men and women (more commonly women) may prefer not to shake hands with the opposite gender due to religious reasons.

If you are sitting in front of an important guest, it is considered rude to cross your legs. Do not point with your finger. If you need to use a hand gesture, use the whole hand.

Driving

Visitors to the UAE wishing to drive must carry an International Driving Permit.

Penalties for drinking and driving are severe. The legal blood alcohol limit is zero. If the police suspect you of drinking and driving, they could confiscate your driver’s license on the spot. The police may also require you to take blood and urine tests if they suspect you of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If you test positive, you may be prosecuted. If you’re convicted, you can expect heavy fines and a lengthy jail sentence.

You must report all accidents to the police. Familiarize yourself with the rules of each of the emirate(s) in which you’ll be driving. Required procedures following a car accident vary depending on the emirate in which the accident occurs. For example, you may be permitted to move your car to the side of the road after an accident, or you may be prohibited from moving it until the police arrive.

Drivers involved in an accident causing injuries may be jailed until the injured are released from the hospital. In an accident causing fatalities, those found at fault may be legally required to provide financial compensation to the family of the deceased. Relatively minor accidents may lead to lengthy court proceedings.

Last Updated: 1st December 2019