If you understand Dubai laws, rules, and regulations (United Arab Emirates) laws and appreciate the cultural differences, you can tap into an exceptional lifestyle in Dubai and avoid any issues with Dubai’s legal authorities.
The regular way of life for expats living in Dubai is a combination of hard work counterbalanced with plenty of sunshine, exceptional facilities, and amenities, with enough freedom and money to enjoy a very high standard of living.
Dubai is a Muslim state. It is strict in its moral and ethical code, it has very different laws to those we have in the UK, Europe, or America, and if you want to live and work in the UAE you need to tread particularly carefully when it comes to staying on the right side of those regulations.
Dubai Travel Advice: Unraveling Rules and Regulations for Expats and Travelers
We have produced a report that compiles the information you need to know and understand if you’re going to have a safe and enjoyable time living or on vacation in the UAE – from dress code to alcohol consumption and drug abuse to holding hands in public. We cover it all.
You’ll have no excuses that you didn’t know certain behavior was not acceptable in Dubai – and most importantly, you’ll have no worries about being arrested because you will be well aware of what is and is not appropriate behavior.
Regulations: Living in Dubai
It’s never easy to sum up a nation in one paragraph. But if you move to Dubai from a Western liberal democracy, you’ll discover a significant shift in rules and code of conduct.
Despite the massive modern advancements that Dubai embodies, and while it is one of the most tolerant regions of the Middle East, the Emiratis are still very traditional and conservative people.
They take their culture and heritage seriously, and they expect visitors and expatriates to respect their values. If you respect Emiratis, they will respect you, and you will find them warm and welcoming.
Finally, it’s worth noting that they are generally tolerant and open-minded, but there are limits to the behavior they will accept.
An A to Z: Laws and Rules in Dubai
A is for Alcohol – non-Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol in Dubai if they are on licensed premises. Some restaurants and most hotels hold a license to serve you alcohol.
In 2020 the UAE introduced new legislation stating that drinking alcohol without a license is no longer illegal in the United Arab Emirates.
Bouncing a cheque
in Dubai, it’s standard practice to pay for large ticket items, such as a car, or even your rent, with forward-dated cheques.
This is because it is very hard for expatriates and even some local people to get credit or loans, and it’s the accepted method of staggering payments to offer up post-dated cheques.
However, unlike in other countries where bouncing a cheque is just an annoyance, with UAE law, it is a very serious criminal offense.
You will be arrested, jailed, and then forced to remain in Dubai to pay your debt before being forced to leave the country. So, please don’t write a cheque unless you have the funds to cover it. Remember that in writing a cheque, you’re entering into a very strict financial agreement. It is no joke to miss a payment in Dubai.
Dancing in Public
Whilst we might think nothing about shimmying down the street arm in arm with a few friends after a night out, dancing in public in Dubai is considered indecent. It is also considered provocative, which can be very dangerous for women.
You can dance in your home behind your curtains and at official clubs – anything else is not acceptable and dangerous.
Dress code in the city
Emiratis dress conservatively and expect visitors and expatriates also to dress conservatively when in public.
So, if you’re going shopping, you’re out for a walk, or you’re going to work, you need to make sure your clothes are of a decent length, that you do not wear anything see-through, that you’re not revealing too much flesh that could be considered indecent and that you also don’t have anything offensive on your clothes in the form of slogans or images.
In shopping malls, you’ll see signs warning you that if you’re inappropriately dressed, you will be removed.
When it comes to sunbathing, you can wear beach attire, but again it needs to cover up the most ‘offensive’ parts. And you cannot sunbathe topless, nor is any form of nudity acceptable – even for children. Once you leave a beach, pool, or water park area, you have to be properly attired for public places. I.e., you can’t walk home in your bikini.
It is not making some statement about how fashionable you are or what a rebel you feel – it is mortally offending public decency and punishable officially with imprisonment and unofficially with abuse and potential assault. Again, don’t take stupid risks – respect the local culture.
You cannot even consume a thimbleful of alcohol and get behind the wheel in Dubai. There is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drink-driving, and you will be imprisoned if you break this very firmly upheld law.
When you travel within the UAE, you might be forgiven for thinking that there are no laws and no rules on the road. However, that is absolutely not true.
It is illegal in Dubai to tailgate, break the speed limit, street race, lane hop, or use a mobile phone while driving – despite the fact you will see all of these going on every day. Bear in mind that Dubai is cracking down and losing its tolerance for lawbreakers, so do not get into the habit of driving as the locals drive.
You can bet your bottom dollar that the police will begin cracking down on driving-related offenses hard in due course, so do not get into bad habits that you will have to break. If you do break a road law, you can be fined, imprisoned, and have your car impounded.
As with drunk driving, Dubai laws have zero tolerance for drugs. Whilst you may think that only extends to narcotics that are illegal in our own countries, it actually extends to some prescription and over-the-counter medicines, even poppy seeds. So, this is important to understand.
You need to know that even if you’re traveling through an airport in the UAE on your way to visit another country, if you’re caught with what’s deemed to be an illegal substance, you could face an automatic 4-year prison term before deportation. If you’re thought to be supplying drugs, you could face automatic life imprisonment.
So, again, know the laws and rules and what you can and cannot bring in. The simplest and safest rule is when visiting Dubai, bring absolutely nothing.
If you are on prescription medicine, you need to know whether what you intend to import is on the banned substances list. To make sure you won’t get in trouble when crossing the border, download this list of controlled drugs from the dha.gov.ae.
Here are the Drug Control Department’s details in the UAE Ministry of Health so that if you are ultimately left in any doubt, you can contact them before entering Dubai. The details are:
Telephone: +971 2 611 7342 / +971 2 633 4958
Fax: +971 2 631 3742
Or write to:
Ministry of Health
Drug Control Department
Abu Dhabi – UAE
Do NOT take a risk.
Any form of donations and fundraising within the UAE must be approved by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). If you fail to do so, however noble the cause, you will be in breach of the UAE’s charity laws, which could result in imprisonment or a substantial fine.
The use of loud music is prohibited in public areas, and dancing in public in non-authorized areas can also get you in trouble. There are also additional local laws that prohibit loud music in some residential areas.
No matter how often a driver cuts you up, do not offensively gesticulate in their general direction. They can call the police, and as an expatriate, you will be in the wrong and fined or even imprisoned.
Road rage is not tolerated, and neither is swearing nor making any rude gestures, so rein it all in.
Photographs without consent
Taking photos of anyone without their consent is a serious offense under UAE law and can land you in a lot of trouble very quickly. If you’ve posted any of the images on social media, this will exacerbate the offense, and you will also be charged under cybercrime laws.
Possession of substances
The penalties for the possession of drugs, even residual amounts, are severe. How severe? All the way to the death penalty if the authorities deemed you were doing something more substantial than personal use. Possession is different in UK, US, or Europe; having any presence of drugs in your bloodstream will be regarded as possession of drugs.
Don’t take chances with substances that may be legal in your own country, so-called legal highs in many countries won’t be legal in Dubai. Even being caught in possession of poppy seeds is a serious violation and can result in a jail sentence.
Public displays of affection
Holding hands in public if you’re a married couple is about as far as you can go in terms of public displays of affection. Hugging and kissing are not tolerated – i.e., any open display of physical affection should be limited to within your own four walls.
Eating and drinking are prohibited on all forms of public transport. This also includes the stations. On-the-spot fines will be issued if you’re caught eating.
The month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which Muslims are expected to fast to purify the soul and refocus their attention on God. Fasting extends beyond eating and drinking; it’s all about exercising restraint.
For expats living in Dubai, it is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during Ramadan – note, this includes in your car! Some restaurants (usually within hotels) remain open, but you will eat out of sight.
Of course, you can eat and drink within the confines of your own home. It’s respectful to keep noise levels down during Ramadan, and you’ll notice that during daylight hours, Dubai seems a much quieter place.
The main religion in Dubai is, of course, Islam – expatriates follow their own religions, and that is tolerated.
However, anything that is an offense against Islam will not be tolerated on any level and will result in fines and/or imprisonment. There is no grey area.
Muslims are called to pray five times a day, and if you’re on the open road or in a public area away from a Mosque, Muslims will pray wherever they are. Please do not disturb them, and do not openly stare.
In the West, we believe that respect is something to be earned – it’s not something we’re necessarily keen to proffer to a stranger.
In Dubai, however, you need to be respectful of everyone around you – no matter what perceived cultural, religious, or even class differences there appear to be between you. If you display improper, disrespectful conduct in public, you could fall foul of the law and face a fine, imprisonment, or even deportation.
Reading the above, you may be confused because, as you will openly see in Dubai, certain nationalities of workers are treated less well than others.
However, if you believe that this is acceptable and you’re rude to others, you make offensive hand gestures if someone cuts you up in traffic, or you issue an expletive if someone pushes in front of you in a queue, be prepared for the fallout.
Yes, respect is not universally observed in the UAE. However, if you want to live your life without conflict, you will observe respect unilaterally. You never know who you’re disrespecting or who’s watching you or listening. Learn to bite your tongue.
Although many Western women hate how they are so openly stared at, they have to put up with it. On the other hand, if any expatriate man addresses a local woman in public, takes her picture without permission, follows her, or in some way ‘bothers’ her, that is not acceptable behavior.
In 2020 the government announced that men who subject women to harassment of any kind would face tougher punishment.
Relationship laws and rules in Dubai are strict. Unless you are married, you cannot have sex. Even if you have been cohabiting with your partner for decades before you move to Dubai, once you are in Dubai, you cannot even legally live together.
However, in 2020 as a part of a significant overhaul of its Islamic personal laws, the Gulf state announced, among other changes, that living together outside marriage is no longer illegal in the United Arab Emirates.
Dress codes exist for visits to public places like shopping malls. Clothes should cover the tops of your arms and legs. Don’t go to a shopping mall wearing beach or swimming clothes. Cross-dressing of any type shouldn’t be done. Be respectful of Ramadan; it is forbidden to eat or drink during daylight hours. There are some exceptions, with restaurants having curtained-off areas for non-Muslims.
Smoking is banned in many public offices and shopping malls, so observe the rules. There are also designated smoking areas all over the city, so the ban is not difficult to observe, even for the most addicted smoker!
Swearing is punishable by up to one year in prison, including your social media posts. Any indecent language on WhatsApp or other messaging platforms can get you in a lot of trouble as well as any offensive posts on FaceBook or other social media networks. This also includes the use of any emojis that contain indecent gestures. Any use of social media that invades another person’s privacy comes with a prison sentence of up to six months.
Users must refrain from insulting or offensive posts which defame Islam or any other religion. Under Article 35 of the UAE Cyber Crime Law, users could face imprisonment of up to seven years, followed by penalties that could range anywhere between AED250,000 to AED1 million.
Working in Dubai
Finally, it must be noted that you should not attempt to work without a permit in the UAE illegally. You must first obtain your paperwork before you take up your job – doing it any other way can land you in prison and then on an enforced flight home.
Dubai rules & laws – summary
Many of the laws and rules in Dubai are common sense. Many of the laws are the same as our own. However, in certain cases – such as in the case of non-married couples not being allowed to live together or have a sexual relationship – the laws and rules in Dubai are perhaps strange to us.
Stay safe, and follow the laws and rules in Dubai to make your life in Dubai a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
You might find useful:
- Living In Dubai – a detailed guide on moving to Dubai;
- Dubai Income Tax & Taxation Advantages For Expats;
- Working In Dubai – How to Find A Good Job In The UAE.
- Best Neighborhoods In Dubai For Families