Essential Do’s and Don’ts for Travellers in the UAE.

Skyline of Abu Dhabi from the Corniche beach

With Dubai receiving millions of tourists every single year and Abu Dhabi following close behind it as the United Arab Emirates rising tourism star, the UAE is used to visitors from all over the world and is generally very welcoming. Unfortunately they are also used to tourists making an array of cultural and religious blunders, from the excusable and mundane to those slip ups that could land you in jail! This basic list of do’s and don’ts in the UAE will help you navigate the cultural minefield. 

Whilst for the most part tiny cultural and religious mistakes are to be expected, and in some cases relatively tolerated for travellers who may not be used to every single cultural aspect of the destination, The Emirates are known for a strict stance on certain issues, and there are more than a few stories of tourists being arrested and even facing jail time. In many cases your personal views on certain aspects of travelling in the UAE don’t matter, I certainly have my own views on the application of Sharia law, but as travellers we are visitors in their country and respect for these traditions are always expected.

Here are a few basic do’s and don’ts for visiting the United Arab Emirates and keeping your visit trouble free.

Don’t be afraid.

It is an unfortunate reality that many people lump the UAE in with the rest of the middle east and declare the entire region unsafe. That simply isn’t true. First of all the United Arab Emirates – even though it is technically a country within the Middle East – should be considered a small region in and of itself, with the country being a small collection of Emirates. Second of all there are parts of the Middle East that warrant increased caution, but those parts are the minority and in large parts travellers can visit the Middle East as a region completely safely. Furthermore the United Arab Emirates is one of the safest countries in the world! So feel free to visit in the knowledge that you will most likely be completely safe and sound.

Read more:

Do learn some of the local language.

Learning some of the local language is one of the basic tenets of being a respectful traveller anywhere and that is no different in the United Arab Emirates. No one will expect you to be completely fluent but the basic fact you are making an effort with greetings and polite responses goes a long way.

Read more:

Hitting The Language Barrier Hard.

Don’t initiate contact when greeting the opposite sex.

Physical greetings such as handshakes and hugs with the opposite sex should be generally avoided because of the strict division of the sexes. If greeting a member of the opposite sex simply put your hand over your heart to show respect instead of going straight in for a handshake. If a woman holds out a hand to initiate a handshake to a man herself then that is generally fine, but always wait and allow the woman to make that decision.

Do dress modestly.

Michael Huxley Cornich Beach Abu Dhabi

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.

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 with a bit of common sense, knee length long cargo shorts are fine, especially in appropriate places like beaches, 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.

Swimwear is allowed on the beach 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.

Don’t show any public displays of affection.

Public displays of affection are extremely uncommon across the United Arab Emirates and Sharia law is largely applied, so basically just do not do it, at all.

Minor infractions such as holding hands or a light hug for a few seconds may be relatively tolerated but you will still get chased down by the morality police and likely given a warning, possibly more depending on how they view your ‘infraction’. Anything else however and you do run the risk of falling foul of the law. As a general rule of thumb, it is always  best to err on the side of caution.

Kissing, petting or any other display of public affection do not fit with local custom or culture and considered an offence to public decency. That means it is illegal, and that includes sex between unmarried couples and of course same sex couples too. There are too many stories of tourists falling foul of this law not to take it seriously so it’s just better to keep your hands to yourself in public and be discreet when getting a hotel room. 

Do be careful when booking a hotel room.

The UAE is not very traveller friendly if you are travelling with a member of the opposite sex or if you are a member of the LGBTQ community. It is illegal under Islamic law in the UAE for a man and woman to live or stay together unless they are married and homosexuality is punishable by death!

This obviously means that along with not displaying any public affection at all for your own safety, members of the LGBTQ community will have to get hotel rooms with separate beds, and men and women should refer to themselves as husband and wife if they are staying together.

Even though these are illegal under Islamic law, in practical terms most hotels, especially the major chain brands, do tend to turn a blind eye if you are discreet. Despite that it is always better to refer to yourselves as husband or wife, or two travelling business colleagues needing separate beds if you are the same sex (or to be on the ultra safe side get separate rooms). It isn’t nice, I understand that, but these are the practical applications if you want to visit the UAE.

Don’t get drunk or drink alcohol in public. 

The UAE despite being a strict Muslim country is not a dry one. There are certain places with alcohol licences, private hotels and beaches and even clubs and venues on party islands such as Yas island in Abu Dhabi where it is perfectly acceptable to drink alcohol. The key however is to enjoy yourself but not to excess, as being drunk and rowdy in public, and drinking in public, will still get you in trouble.

Do eat the local traditional cuisine. 

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are modern metropolises with a wide range of international cuisines and branded chain restaurants, but don’t forget about the local Arabic cuisine as well. If you can find a local street food stall selling Al Machboos and Khuzi then make a beeline for it!

The United Arab Emirates may place certain restrictions on travellers but is also an amazing place to travel to if you can navigate around them.

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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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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