What Travellers Need To Know About Sharia Law In The United Arab Emirates.

Skyline of Abu Dhabi from the Corniche beach

The United Arab Emirates, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a Muslim state that has a culture and a legal system based largely on Sharia law. As travellers to the UAE, it is always worth familiarising yourself with the laws, rules and customs so you don’t find yourself unexpectedly in trouble. Here is everything all travellers need to know about Sharia Law when travelling to Dubai, Abu Dhabi or the wider United Arab Emirates.

This article has been updated for January 2023 to take into account changes in the law since it was originally published in 2020.

The United Arab Emirates on the whole is a very safe destination. The crime rates are low and although risk does exist, reasonable common sense safety precautions as well as the general safety of the country means that you are unlikely to be the victim of a crime.

The big worry most travellers to the UAE have is about what they can and can’t do from a cultural and legal perspective. What can travellers wear in Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Are swimsuits acceptable on the beach in the UAE? Can they share a hotel room, hold hands or hug a partner or even get in trouble just for being part of the LGBTQ community? These are all questions travellers have about visiting the UAE and they are all very valid questions. Up until very recent changes, strict laws and practices in the country can themselves be a risk factor to any visitor who falls foul of them, and still are to some extent.

This is why in this post we will go over everything you need to know about Sharia law in the UAE as a traveller, and help you answer the most common questions and worries travellers have when visiting.

What Is Sharia Law?

Sharia law is a core part of Islamic culture and faith. Drawing predominantly from the Quran and the Hadith, it gives a set of broad categories by which the faithful should live; allowed and recommended actions, reprehensible actions and forbidden and mandatory actions which are punishable if not observed. Sharia law is so ingrained into society that it also forms part of the basis of the legal systems in strict Muslim countries that observe it. This has led to strict laws against any kind of homosexuality, public displays of affection and other practices that deviate from the strict tenets of the faith.

Sharia Law In The United Arab Emirates.

Like many conservative Muslim countries, much of the legal system in the UAE, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is based on Sharia Law and is by Western standards often considered very strict and very prohibitive.

The death penalty is active in the UAE, and although the several Emirates do often have very slightly different variations on the severity of the punishments, serious crimes such as murder, drug trafficking or rape are punishable by death, whilst many acts that are considered normal in the West are subject to very strict punishments.

Homosexuality and any form of LGBTQ expression are considered illegal, as is any form of cross dressing. Even physical heterosexual relationships are illegal outside of marriage, including adultery, and any public display of affection can have serious legal consequences. Sharia Law also covers how people dress, what they wear, where they go and how the genders interact with each other, so it is hardly surprising that it leaves many travellers worried.

Up until recently, Sharia law and the UAE’s tourism industry have had a little bit of an uneasy alliance. The tourism industry is large and powerful in the UAE, thanks in part to the overwhelming number of expats who also live there, and large parts of it have always given tourists a little leeway when it comes to applying the law, especially on private hotel beaches and in international branded hotels, but only a little. You should still be very careful and not push things too far. 

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Recent Legal Changes.

Authorities often looked the other way when it came to applying the law to foreign nationals, although there have been a number of notable exceptions to that rule over the years and the threat of strict punishment was always there. Since 2020, legal changes have taken that threat away to a large extent for many behaviours that were once heavily criminalised in an effort to improve relations between the UAE and the western world, but cultural norms do still exist and should be largely respected out of respect and for your own personal safety.

A whole raft of changes has swept through the UAE legal system, and changes continue to be made as debates rage on, from raising the age of adulthood from 14 to 18 to cohabitation laws, but the ones that most significantly impact tourists are listed below.

Sharia Law And Cohabitation In The United Arab Emirates.

Technically cohabitation of an unmarried couple is still illegal in the UAE, although this law is often overlooked in hotels where travellers might be staying together and was rarely enforced. Travellers of the opposite sex should have no problem sharing a hotel room, especially in the larger hotels of Dubai and Abu Dhabi for example which are generally more tolerant, but it is probably still wise to pretend you are married.

Sharia Law And Public Displays Of Affection In The United Arab Emirates.

The segregation of the sexes is still very strictly upheld in the UAE in general terms, and it is illegal to show any excessive public display of affection and still frowned upon to display minor ones, such as hand holding. What is considered excessive however is often debateable and dependent on if anyone puts in a complaint. Very basically speaking, what should be private, should be kept private.

So for example holding hands with your married partner is tolerated in some limited circumstances and limited places such as hotels or beach resorts, but hugging or excessive touching will get you a visit from the morality police and a warning or worse.

Kissing is in general not tolerated. A quick peck on the lips to say hello or goodbye may be tolerated in areas where that may be expected, such as the airport or hotels, but if it is more than a quick peck in public, you may fall foul of the law if someone complains.

Sharia Law And Heterosexual Relationships In The United Arab Emirates.

Consensual sex between a man and a woman outside marriage where both are over the age of 18 years is generally permitted under UAE law. This does also apply to extra marital affairs, but be warned, if you are found out and either person’s spouse or parent or guardian files a criminal complaint, then both parties are liable to a jail sentence for no less than six months.

In general, what travellers do behind closed hotel doors is their business. Just keep it discreet and don’t get caught in the hotel lift on the way up and you should be fine.

Sharia Law And The LGBTQ Community In The United Arab Emirates.

Homosexuality and any form of identity within the LGBTQ community is illegal in the UAE. Therefore sex between two members of the same sex is illegal too. Any member of the LGBTQ community will obviously have to be extremely careful with accidental public displays of affection and also not be open about their sexuality at all. With few exceptions many hotels will only allow same sex couples to share a room with two beds, not one. Even if the larger international brands in Dubai and Abu Dhabi do allow one double bed, it is under a very strict ‘don’t ask, don’t tell and shut the hell up about it’ rule. If you can handle appearing to the outside world as two travelling colleagues or friends, then like above what you do behind the closed bedroom door is entirely your own business.

There are also officially no openly LGBTQ friendly spaces in the UAE, although there are some slightly more open minded bars and clubs on Yas island in Abu Dhabi and the more touristy/expat parts of Dubai.

Should You Boycott The UAE Because Of Their Stance On LGBTQ?

The UAE is a country where it is illegal to be a member of the LGBTQ community. There is no getting around that sad fact. Despite my personal feelings on that I believe boycotting a destination is pointless and politics generally should have very little relation to the travel experience. Many members of the LGBTQ community do visit and live here very safely every single day, even if their lifestyle is hidden, for a lack of a better word. You will have to hide your lifestyle and be very careful about your actions, but if you are okay with that there is no reason you shouldn’t travel here based on that. Saying that however even the slightest infraction can get you in serious trouble here and if you feel personally that is too much of a risk for you, then there is no judgement at all on you taking the personal decision to avoid the UAE.

What Is The Dress Code For Travellers In The United Arab Emirates?

Abu Dhabi Corniche Beach

The UAE is a predominantly Muslim country and whilst it is not expected that travellers cover up completely during their time there, modest, conservative dress is expected.

UAE law does not specify what is or is not acceptable exactly, but does stipulate that clothes should not be sexually provocative, whatever that means. This is obviously open top interpretation but as always it is usually best to err on the side of caution.

For women this means long, loose trousers or skirts, nothing form fitting, and tops that cover the shoulders. It is not expected that you cover your hair as well unless you are visiting a mosque or other cultural site, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Carrying a shawl is generally a good idea.

For men this means trousers and a shirt or T Shirt that covers the shoulders too at the least. In more liberal areas such as Dubai and Ubu Dhabi shorts are tolerated in certain areas with a bit of common sense, knee length long cargo shorts are fine, especially in appropriate places like beaches, hotels or resorts, cut off denim hot pants are not! If you go to a restaurant or public place away from the beach then trousers are more appropriate.

A lot of travellers get caught out with clothes that they think are perfectly modest and would be in most places but not in the UAE. It is frowned upon for guys to wear sleeveless tops for example and women can run into trouble for wearing tops with straps instead of full sleeves that cover the shoulders.

The further outside of the generally more liberal Abu Dhabi and slightly less so Dubai you get, the more conservative you need to be. In Sharjah and Ajman Sharia law is enforced very strictly so obviously it is necessary to cover up a lot more.

Swimwear is allowed on the beach in the major tourist hotspots and any pool or waterpark obviously, and private hotel beaches are generally more tolerant of bikinis, but are not allowed elsewhere. Many local women tend to wear the abaya on the beach and it is probably smart to be a little modest with one piece swimwear and baggy shorts. It should go without saying that going topless is a complete no no.

Sharia Law and Cross Dressing.

Cross dressing was briefly decriminalised in the UAE as part of a raft of sweeping changes to the law, but as of 2022, this was criminalised again.

Sharia Law And Free Speech For Travellers In The United Arab Emirates.

If you are from a Western country you should be pretty much used to being able to have an opinion and being free to express that. Not in the UAE.

Sharia law will not in any way tolerate any speech that disrespects or disagrees with the Islamic faith or Sharia, nor will it tolerate any open discussion of other faiths, as you may get into trouble for preaching, even if you weren’t. So be careful and bite your tongue.

The same is true for social media too. Be extremely careful what you post, especially if you have a public profile. You can’t even make any defamatory comments about other people or public buildings, even on review sites, so it may be better to leave that ranty review until you get home.

On a similar note you should also be very careful posting pictures to social media too, it is illegal to take a picture of someone without consent so save that epic picture for the ‘gram until you get home as well.

Sharia Law And Drugs In The United Arab Emirates.

It really should go without saying by now that taking illegal substances or even worse, drug trafficking in the UAE will get you the most severe of punishments and frankly if you get caught doing the latter this is one time I will take the side of the UAE. If you are travelling with prescription medication however that is a slightly different matter in that it is allowed, but you have to apply online for pre approval and it all has to be declared, signed off and scrutinised very carefully. If you don’t do this then the best case scenario is that your medication will be confiscated, at worst you may be arrested and prosecuted. The most up to date advice on prescription medicines in the UAE can be found on the Foreign Commonwealth Office official website.

Laws continue to change frequently in the UAE at the moment, and despite growing tolerance not all western behaviours and norms are accepted. If you are unsure of where you stand it is always best to act and behave modestly and with deference to local norms, just in case. Don’t let any of this put you off travelling to the UAE, it is an amazing country for the most part. Just be careful, stick to the rules and you shouldn’t come up against any trouble.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Travel Advice, Travel Talk
4 comments on “What Travellers Need To Know About Sharia Law In The United Arab Emirates.
  1. Sharon says:

    I have to admit as a woman this is something that has really put me off from travelling to the UAE, especially Dubai.

  2. Kabir says:

    Travelers should stay out of UAE and Islamic countries. They are strict on Sharia and hate travellers. Go to other places instead that are not Islamic.

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