Heading to Dubai, UAE? Read this before you go!

With absurd regularity, Dubai pops up in the news over human rights issues with tourists and visitors.  Foreigners are more likely to be arrested in the United Arab Emirates than anywhere else in the world and “Human rights violations are so thoroughly documented in the UAE that the UK refuses any extradition requests from the country”.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office recorded over 1,400 female detentions in the Emirates over the past five years for a variety of crimes.

Just one person needs to take offence and to make a complaint and you can be in serious trouble and be held in custody for a long time if you challenge the charge,” said Radha Stirling, founder of the non-profit organisation Detained in Dubai, which helps people in legal difficulty in the United Arab Emirates.

Updated 2020

A few examples of tourist troubles in Dubai so far

Several high-profile cases of tourists and expatriates running afoul of conservative rules in the UAE in recent years have hit media outlets. Here are just a few examples:

In 2020, a young, British air stewardess was arrested after being in a man’s house where police officials found the butts of two joints. Despite only having met the man for the first time that evening and passing a drugs test in jail, Dubai authorities refused to release her. After four days in jail, officials released a statement suggesting she was found in possession of marijuana, pills and was intending to supply others with them. Family members have been denied contact with her, have not been allowed to take in toiletries or food and have reported she is existing on water, bread and jam.

In 2019, a British mother was arrested with her teenage daughter at the airport and had her passport removed for writing on a Facebook post that her estranged husband, of 18 years, new wife was a ‘horse’. After a week’s detention, the teenage daughter was allowed to return home but the mother is forced to remain in the county.  Under the cybercrime laws someone can be jailed for making defamatory comments online, even if they were not in the country at the time. She faces two years in jail and a £50,000 fine. She stated “I am not allowed to leave Dubai. I have been to court once, where I was not allowed to defend myself. And a police station where we were kept waiting for 12 hours without any progress.”

In 2017, Scottish electrician, Jamie Harron was arrested, detained and had his passport confiscated for accidentally touching a man on his hip to prevent drink spillage. Trumped up charges of public indecency and drinking alcohol at the Rock Bottom Bar cost him over $30,000 and resulted in a three-month jail sentence for public indecency.

In 2016, 42-year-old Scott Richards was arrested in Dubai for sharing a charity post on his Facebook page. He promoted a charity drive to buy blankets and tarpaulins for refugees in Afghanistan. He was held for 22 days then charged with fundraising without permission. Laws created in 2015 prohibit donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior written approval from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department in Dubai. Penalties for violating the law include prison terms between two months and one year and a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams (£20,000, $27,000).

In 2016 a 25-year-old British woman was on holiday when she was attacked by two British men. When she reported the rape at a police station in Dubai, she was arrested and charged with “extra-marital sex”, a crime reportedly punishable by jail, flogging and stoning to death. Whilst she had her passport removed and was forced to remain in Dubai, her attackers were arrested but then freed and left the country.

In 2013 a Norwegian fashion designer was raped whilst on a business trip. When reporting to the police, she was charged with perjury,  extramarital sex and drinking alcohol. She received a 16-month jail sentence.  There was an international outcry over the case, and eventually the lady was pardoned by Dubai’s rulers, almost certainly because of the bad publicity.

In 2013 Grant Cameron, Suneet Jeerh and Karl Williams were jailed for possessing a quantity of synthetic cannabis known as spice. They said they were given electric shocks and had guns held to their heads when they were held for seven months without trial. In Williams’ witness statement he said his testicles had been electrocuted during interrogation by the police. The men’s lawyers said they were forced at gunpoint to sign documents in Arabic, which none of them understood. After a year imprisonment and four months into their four year sentence, they were released on pardon.

In 2010, a newly engaged couple found themselves in prison after the woman alleged that she was raped by a hotel employee. During the course of the investigation the police discovered that the young couple were sharing a hotel room, even though they were unmarried, and they were arrested for having sex outside of marriage. The alleged attacker was not charged with rape, but instead was charged with sex outside of marriage. The young couple were eventually allowed to leave Dubai after producing a marriage certificate and dropping the allegations of rape against the attacker.

In 2010, a British couple were arrested and sentenced to a month in jail for kissing in public in Dubai.

In 2009, an Australian man was arrested for allegedly saying “What the fuck?” to a plainclothes police officer who grabbed his arm at Dubai Airport. He was forced to remain in Dubai for months before being let go with a fine.

In the most prominent case, a British couple were jailed for three months in 2008 after having drunken sex on a public beach.

Why does this happen?

With some of the strictest laws in the world but often the most attractive tourist deals and cheap stop-overs, unsuspecting foreigners get into trouble with the law and are forced to spend thousands of dollars in a convoluted legal system stacked against them. I also suspect that Dubai uses these vulnerable tourists as a means to negotiate with the UK government. They become pawns in an unnecessary battle between countries.

I see this as deliberate exploitation by a fascist and male-dominated regime,  so to avoid YOU any problems, if you travel there, I’ve compiled a list of laws you should be aware of.

Beware, some of these are shocking!

Be Careful With Over the Counter or Doctor Prescribed Medications

The UAE has very strict medication laws and even certain over the counter medicines especially those with codeine are forbidden.  Checking the banned substances list from the local consulate or your embassy is helpful prior to flying.

If you are using doctor-prescribed drugs such as painkillers or antidepressants it is advisable to carry a doctor’s note and a prescription. The letter must cover the period of travel and describe the illness and the relative medicines prescribed for that illness. If you are bringing prescription drugs into the UAE you may need to seek prior agreement from the authorities.

British resident Cat Le-Huy was arrested in Dubai for carrying Melatonin jet-lag tablets. He was forced to sign a document in Arabic and was refused a translator. He said once the tablets were proved to be Melatonin, police took what he described as dirt from his bag to test for cannabis.

Islam dominates everything

Islam is a way of life and Muslims pray five times a day.  Drivers who are not close to a mosque may stop randomly by the side of the road to pray.

Islamic religious values are greatly respected and showing any disrespect towards religious beliefs or practices is considered deeply offensive and very likely to result in a heavy fine and/or imprisonment. This includes the sharing of ‘disrespectful’ posts on social media or any promotion of atheism.

If you’re an atheist, you should keep quiet.

Be Careful What You Write On Social media

On 7 June 2017, the UAE authorities announced 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.

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 or criticise the country or its authorities may be considered a crime punishable under UAE law.

Definitely do not share any cartoons from a prominent Danish artist and be careful who you insult on social media too.

An Emirati court in 2014 sentenced eight people, including an American, to up to a year in prison for their role in producing a satirical video about youth culture in Dubai that prosecutors said defamed the country’s image. The American was released within weeks of the verdict, after having already serving nine months behind bars.

Dubai Coastline

Internet censorship in Dubai

The Government in the United Arab Emirates has restricted access to websites and monitors chat rooms, instant messages and blogs. Pornography is strictly forbidden!

The country’s only internet service provider has a proxy server which blocks any website that goes against the country’s moral values. Sites regarding dating or marriage, LGBT issues, the Baha’I faith, Israel or sites related to unblocking the censorship are all inaccessible. Reports even suggest that any site containing the word gay or sex are blocked.

Using a VPN is illegal although many people do.

Some Driving Laws

The UAE has a zero-tolerance policy towards drink driving. You can be charged and imprisoned if you are caught with even the smallest amount of alcohol in your system.

Tailgating, speeding, racing, lane jumping and using a mobile phone while driving are all against the law.  There are numerous speed cameras on the roads and motorways. Wearing a seatbelt is mandatory.

Fines in the UAE are heavy.  If you are caught  you may also face the possibility of having your car impounded.

Do Not Jay Walk

Jaywalking, aka crossing the road at a non-legal point, is also illegal and you could be subject to a fine.

Watch What You Photograph?

Equipment like satellite phones, listening or recording devices, radio transmitters, DSLR cameras or binoculars, may require a licence for use in the UAE.

Don’t photograph people without their permission. Men have been arrested for photographing women on beaches.

Photography of certain government buildings and military installations isn’t allowed.

Hobbies like bird watching and plane spotting may be misunderstood – particularly near military sites, government buildings and airports.

In February 2015, three British nationals were arrested while plane spotting at UAE airports. They were detained for 2 months on charges of espionage.

A 70-year-old American man who spoke at a conference on creative thinking in Dubai was arrested in 2014 for taking a photograph of a building. The man is an architect by training and an avid photographer of buildings.

Avoid Displays of Affection

Holding Hands for married couples is moderately tolerated but kissing and hugging are considered offences against public decency. Open displays of affection are generally not tolerated and there have been several arrests and imprisonments for kissing in public.

Definitely no swearing

Offensive language, spitting and aggressive behaviour (including hand gestures) are viewed very seriously as obscene acts and can result in imprisonment and deportation.

Absolutely no drugs

Drugs are not tolerated and neither are most legal highs found in the UK.

British tourist Keith Brown was sentenced to four years in prison after Dubai customs officers found a 0.003g trace of cannabis stuck in the tread of his shoe.


Alcohol is banned

Non-Muslim residents must apply for a liquor licence to drink alcohol at home and in licensed venues. These licences are valid only in the Emirate that issued the licence.

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,  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.


Female Solo Travellers & Dress Code

Dubai is considered a safe destination for solo female travellers, although I would definitely say that females are second class citizens and my research suggests females may be in for unwanted attention if travelling alone.

Women are advised to dress modestly when in public areas like shopping malls. Clothes should cover the tops of the arms and legs down to the knees and underwear should not be visible.

Swimming attire should be worn only on beaches or at swimming pools and it is better to avoid wearing tight or revealing clothes when travelling away from the beach clubs and resorts.

Clothing should NOT be transparent, indecently expose parts of the body or display offensive pictures or slogans. 

Be careful as well if you are tattooed with what could be deemed offensive images or slogans if in doubt cover-up.

Any form of nudity is strictly forbidden, including topless sunbathing.

It is better to wait until a hand is offered to you for a handshake, as some devout Muslims do not shake hands with women. This is probably because we’re inferior rather than dirty though lol.

Government offices frequently have a separate queue for women. This might confuse us though, given we only have half a brain!


Dress code for men

It is preferable for both men to have their shoulders and knees covered when not on the beach or at a hotel.   It is not appropriate for men to walk along the street or malls bare-chested.

LGBQT rights

Sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage are a crime and same-sex marriages are not recognised.

Article 354 of the Federal Penal Code states, “Whoever commits sodomy with a male shall be punished by death.”

In 2008, two lesbian tourists were given a one-month jail sentence and then deported for engaging in public displays of affection while visiting a beach. The trial, reportedly the first of its kind, prompted the police to create a special task force to combat homosexuality and other “indecent acts” from taking place on the beaches.

In 2013, it was announced that all the Gulf Cooperative Countries had agreed to establish some form of, yet unknown, testing in order to ban and deport gay foreigners.

Cross-dressing is also illegal. In 2014   two transgender women from Brazil were arrested at a hotel nightclub in Dubai for “imitating women.” The women were not allowed to leave Dubai having their passports confiscated awaiting trial.

In 2005, twenty-six young men were arrested at an Abu Dhabi hotel after police discovered the men engaging in cross-dressing and homosexual practices. In discussing the raid, Mohammed bin Nukhaira Al Dhahiri, Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Auqaf stated, “There will be no room for homosexual and queer acts in the UAE. Our society does not accept queer behaviour, either in word or in action”. Initial reports suggested that some of these men were ordered to be given experimental hormone treatments, although the government subsequently backed off from these statements. The men were all given a five-year prison sentence.


Adultery is forbidden

All sex outside marriage is illegal.

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.


For the love of God, don’t dance!!

Dancing is ONLY allowed in the privacy of your home or at licensed clubs. Dancing in public is classed as indecent and provocative.


Some of my thoughts on Dubai

Saudi Arabia gets a lot of bad press; it’s described as a “hideous, brutal, oil-rich theocracy that exports terrorism” by journalist Alex Proud. But you know what? It really doesn’t pretend to be anything else. You know where you stand with Saudi Arabia and I guess that’s why not many tourists or travellers go there.

The UAE, however, has cleverly marketed Dubai as a liberal, sun-touting Las Vegas, holiday resort but I hope you can see above that that is far from true and it actually has far more in common with Saudi Arabia than western Europe.

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