While Dubai looks very relaxed and easy going, similar to any other sun seeker destination, there are laws hidden behind the bikinis, beaches, clubs & booze that could drastically impact your vacation enjoyment.
Dubai & the UAE have been marketing machines to the west. Images of girls in bikinis on the beaches, alcohol, night clubbing, parties, prostitutes (used even by the locals) & rumors of western style night life has attracted singles looking for fun, homosexuals, young couples & families alike. The problem is there are two standards in Dubai. Parties are frequent. Night clubbing is standard. Sex out of wedlock happens all the time, mostly behind closed doors. A plethora of immigrant prostitutes plague the streets & bars & yet still, tourists are locked up on occasion for their decency violations.
Visitors to the UAE need to be aware that even though every day, the citizens, rulers & enforcers in Dubai turn a blind eye to this behaviour (and reportedly participate), doesn’t mean the rules don’t exist and doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be the victim of a random and incidental enforcement. Even if you see others participating in “indecent” behaviour such as giving their opposite sex friend a welcoming kiss on the cheek, doesn’t mean that you will get away with it every time. Don’t ignore the laws, even if you see others ignoring them. You could wind up in Dubai jail!
Lauren Jones from Detained in Dubai discusses:
If you are unfamiliar with the culture and local practices in Dubai, make sure to be informed and follow the guidelines for decent behavior to respect local traditions, religious customs and to stay out of trouble.
Recently, a British couple was accused of kissing and touching each other in public while consuming alcohol. This is why it is important to become familiar with the customs and practices in foreign countries. The couple faced up to a month in jail for their indecency after a child claimed she saw the two kissing. According to the couple, they were just friends greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek. They were also fined 1,000 dirham ($272 USD) for illegal consumption of alcohol.
This is not the first time this has happened. In less than two years, 3 Brits have found themselves in trouble for violating decency laws. UAE is a very conservative region. In 2008, a British couple faced up to 3 months in jail after being found guilty of engaging in drunken sex out of wedlock, luckily escaping the charges on appeal. In a similar case, a British couple dodged a jail term by producing a marriage certificate after sharing a hotel room and being accused of having sex out of wedlock.
Authorities in Dubai have recently released guidelines for decent behavior. Travelers and ex-pats should be aware that playing loud music, dancing, nudity, kissing and even unmarried couples holding hands or hugging could be considered inappropriate. Swearing or rude gestures should also be avoided. Any breach of these guidelines could result in imprisonment or a fine.
According to the US Department of State, travelers wishing to drink alcohol must purchase a license from the Ministry of the Interior in Dubai. It is a criminal offence to buy alcohol at the shop or drink in your home without a license. As a tourist, drinking in hotel bars or buying duty free should not be a problem. Severe punishments, however, may result from drinking in public places, including the street, desert or the beach.
To get a liquor license, one must be non-Muslim, a resident of Dubai (or resident visa), earning at least 3,500AED monthly, and be at least 21 years old. If married, only the husband can apply for a liquor license, but the husband can apply for permission for his wife to be able to purchase liquor.
Women should be sure to wear modest clothing, without revealing necklines or short skirts. Islamic custom is for legs, ankles and shoulders to be covered. Pants and skirts are to be of an appropriate length and clothing must not be tight, transparent or display obscene or offensive pictures and slogans. On beaches, appropriate swimwear must be worn, making bikinis arguably inappropriate but this is not clear. There has been a crackdown on topless sun tanning, and undercover police officers are apparently patrolling beaches since the infamous sex on the beach incident. In one week, police reported they detained 79 people for “disturbing families enjoying the beach” with their behavior.
When unsure, ask or err on the side of caution. Stricter dress codes exist in the emirate of Sharjah, however, with the new guidelines, Dubai may become quite strict with the dress code, especially in the mega malls. Women should also be aware of attracting unwanted attention when dressing inappropriately.
Drugs are not tolerated in Dubai and typically result in four year prison terms for drug possession, while trafficking drugs has a death penalty attached. A Swiss man was recently reported to have been imprisoned for possession of 3 poppy seeds on his clothing after eating a bread roll in the Heathrow airport. Banned substances include (among others) poppy seeds, melatonin, codeine or any minute trace of marijuana or other narcotic substances. Prescription drugs should be accompanied by a doctor’s note detailing the need for the medication and dose, even if in transit. Medicines should also be carried in their original packaging if possible.
Homosexuality is also illegal in Dubai, punishable by 1 year in prison. However, this does not mean there is not an underground scene, just risks involved. Dubai police recently arrested 17 foreign men for cross-dressing. It has been reported that the Criminal Investigation Division frequent gay hot spots to entrap people. Unreported cases of raids on known gay bars are rumored to have happened but remain unpublished. It has been reported that if a Muslim is caught committing homosexual acts they are sentenced to government-ordered hormone treatments, five years in jail and a lashing.
The importance of researching and understanding the laws and religious customs of places before traveling, especially Dubai, is becoming increasingly evident. A 28 year old Russian woman and 30 year old Lebanese man discovered this the hard way when put on trial for drinking juice in public. That sounds crazy, but it’s not. The couple was drinking juice in public during the daytime while Muslims were fasting. This is not only disrespectful, but also illegal.
Article 313 of the Federal Penal Code of the United Arab Emirates, states that a public intake of food and beverage during daytime hours of the month of Ramadan is forbidden. This is why it is important to be familiar with laws as well as religious beliefs when traveling to be both respectful and lawful. The punishment for a violation of this law is either a penalty of up to 2, 000 dirham ($550 USD) or a term of up to one month in prison.
The couple charged with this offence explained to the court that they were not Muslim and were unaware of this law. Although the court apparently took the mitigating circumstances into account, they still found the couple guilty. The court fined them each 1,000 dirham ($275 USD), finding that ignorance did not exclude responsibility. It is really important to research and understand the rules before traveling or moving to Dubai or the United Arab Emirates in general.
This couple was the first to be charged with this offence since the beginning of Ramadan on September first. Dubai was regarded as being lax on their rules because it is a tourist destination, turning a blind eye to people wearing shorts and drinking alcohol at bars and hotels. The government however, has recently decided to start cracking down, reminding people it is a Muslim nation. With reports of plain clothed policeman on the watch, it is important to be familiar with the laws and how to behave in Dubai.
None of this information is meant to deter one from traveling to Dubai. The information presented is to enlighten the reader of the need to be informed and to abide by the decency and other laws in Dubai. It is important to be informed on customs and traditions to be respectful when traveling anywhere in the world.
Radha Stirling, founder of Detained in Dubai recommends that travel agencies, airlines & advisory services provide information when holidays are booked on behaviour expectations in Dubai. While technically this is the visitors’ responsibility, with mass public relations and marketing, Radha argues that there is not only a duty of care but social responsibility to inform the unsuspecting tourist of what exactly is okay and what is not, the risks involved & results of breaching these rules.
Comments from Readers:
“Very well written!
Perhaps a document of this nature should be issued to all passengers on arrival at UAE airports – possibly at Passport control. And, I think it would help to be given out to expats at all expat venues as I’m sure there are many current residents who still don’t understand the severity of consequences if caught. As a resident myself, I am still amazed by how many expats are walking so close to the edge with their behaviour and dress! I’m British and not a prude, but I understand where I am and understand that there are laws here made in the Emirates, for the Emirates and everyone should abide by them.”