I recently had an incredible opportunity to visit the United Arab Emirates!
It was my first time visiting the middle east so of course I wanted to do as much research as I could before visiting. As a young western woman visiting the middle east, I wanted to be very clear of the laws of the land and show the utmost respect for the people and their culture. My main goal for this trip was to come back with a better understanding of middle eastern culture, the people, the religion, and of course I wanted to have all the once in a lifetime experiences that Dubai and Abu Dhabi have to offer. Dubai has many of the worlds tallest, biggest, and record breaking instillations including the worlds tallest building at 2,722 ft (829.8 m), the Burj Khalifa, the worlds only 7 star Hotel & Restaurant; the Burj Al Arab, and an artificial island shaped like a palm tree; Palm Island. A mall the size of 50 football fields with an indoor ski resort, Abu Dhabi has the worlds fastest rollercoaster at 149mph, and so so much more!!! The Prime Minister had his office 3D printed, for goodness sakes. The country has so much money they don’t know what to do with it.
I feel I need to be very honest because I know there are many people out there like me who have always been curious about Dubai and the middle east but are also in fact fearful. We cannot help but see the horror stories that have been reported particularly on the treatment of women. It is important while traveling to always be aware and respectful of the countries laws you are visiting. There is a lot of fear and hatred towards Islam in the world today, fear and hatred come from lack of understanding. Above all, with everything that is going on in the world, I wanted to leave the UAE with a deeper understanding. If you are considering visiting Dubai, I hope that this post will help provide insight on what to expect, some fun things to do, and most importantly the laws you need to know about.
First things first, lets discuss the laws and then we will get on to the fun stuff. Dubai is like the Las Vegas of the middle east. A manmade city in the desert, only think of Vegas on a massive amount of steroids. It is the most progressive city in the middle east and they pride themselves on being a friendly tourist destination. Next year they are opening IMG World, the worlds largest theme park to bring more families to visit. It may feel like a western city but it is extremely important to always remember they are still under Sharia Law. In Dubai & Abu Dhabi they basically have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or they “look the other way” for visitors. That is of course, unless you piss off the wrong person, have lewd public behavior, and then of course Sharia Law can always be in-forced. These are rare cases. This is how it was explained to me by my 3 local friends. One a muslim born and raised in Dubai, the other two are non muslim American expats.
Its hard to make sense of a place like Dubai where you cannot even kiss someone on the cheek but at the same time I heard stories about a whole other side to Dubai. Where they turn their cheeks to their multimillion dollar prostitution industry. Apparently, its a well known fact that Dubai is littered with hookers. I had this fear of this hypothetical situation of where…what if I am out with my boyfriend and a Sheik approached me and propositioned me. I would be completely appalled and it would take everything I have to not punch him in the face, which I am sure would lead to my immediate arrest in a middle eastern prison, or better yet stoned…eeek. Yes these things crossed my mind.
I was very confused on what to expect, hearing two different sides of Dubai that completely contradict each other. I was especially quite nervous, being an unmarried woman who was traveling with her boyfriend. This in itself breaks Sharia Law. However, we very strictly and respectfully followed their laws and never once showed any PDA. Most will just assume you are married. In Dubai you should mainly stick around the hotels, they are the most laid back establishments and they do not enforce the same types of rules as elsewhere. You are safe to relax. I saw very skimpy bikinis, dresses, and even some PDA between couples.
Here are the laws you need to follow. Keep in mind hotels are more of a safe place. Just use common sense and do not do ever make scenes.
- Drinking: Drinking or being drunk in public is not tolerated and the legal drinking age is 21. You should only drink in a hotel.
- Public displays of affection: Holding hands, kissing or gets cosy with your other half could lead to arrest and imprisonment. I did see this with a couple of couples at my hotel, and they were fine. I stayed in the Westin.
- Sex outside marriage: Sex between those who are not married is illegal and can lead to severe criminal sanctions.
- Homosexuality: Homosexual acts are illegal and subject to severe punishment.
- Swearing: Swearing and making rude gestures, such as the middle finger, are criminal acts in the UAE.
- Swimwear: Swimsuits, bikinis are fine at the beach, no thongs, and nudity at beaches is illegal.
- Smoking: Lighting up in a shopping mall, government building or shop can result in a fine.
- Clothing: Women should be clothed from the shoulders to knees, nothing transparent. Men are fine in long shorts and t-shirts.
- Photos: Taking photographs of people, particularly women, without permission is illegal and can lead to arrest or fines.
- Ramadan: During Ramadan, it is illegal for non-Muslims to eat, drink or smoke in public in front of Muslims between sunrise and sunset. You can eat behind curtains at certain restaurants.
- Medicines: Many medications available over the counter or by prescription are illegal in the Dubai.
- Drugs: The UAE laws on drugs are extremely strict, and include the death penalty or life in jail
Honestly they sound scary when reading them but I did not find it hard to follow the majority of these laws even during Ramadan. It was 115f with 98% humidity, it was extremely hot so having to cover up to my knees and not being able to drink water in public with that kind of heat was a bit annoying. But when it’s that hot you are not even really outside. I felt very comfortable in long loose clothing and would find places behind curtains or in private to drink water. It was also actually refreshing and interesting to be in a more modest public environment. The other law I found difficult was the PDA. If you have not read the 5 Love Languages, I recommend you go out and buy it now. Out of the 5 Love Languages, my boyfriend and I share the language of physical touch. When we are together we are always holding hands, give each other kisses, squeezes, and other flirty little displays of love and affection. In Dubai…this is completely illegal even if you are married. This is one of the most common reasons people are fined or arrested. Although we saw PDA with a couple of couples at our hotel, we felt it was best not to. This was my first time, it was Ramadan, and I wanted to be extra careful. As long as you respect the culture and laws you will be fine and have nothing to worry about! It is not as scary as what you have heard!