The don’ts in Dubai

Dubai is a fun and frivolous playground on the Persian Gulf, but don’t consider it the Vegas of the Middle East. While this eclectic city is one of the most permissive, relaxed, cosmopolitan destinations in the region, you do have to watch your behavior to some degree. What’s considered appropriate in your home country may be inappropriate if not illegal here, so bone-up on the local rules before visiting. Cross the line and the consequences may be dire. In fact, many a foreigner has been thrown in jail for unwittingly committing an offense. Don’t be alarmed or put off, however. Just adhere to some basic guidelines and cultural sensitivities and you can have a good time without offending anyone or breaking any local laws. Here are some things not to do when in Dubai.


1. Don’t Do Drugs

Just say no to dabbling in drugs in Dubai. This should be common sense, but it’s worth stressing here. Dubai has a zero tolerance policy towards possession, use and selling of illicit substances. It goes beyond the standard list of illegal narcotics you’d expect like marijuana, ecstasy, heroine and cocaine. Even prescription pharmaceuticals and some over-the-counter medications may be considered contraband. Some travelers have been incarcerated for carrying something as innocuous as codeine-based painkillers in their toiletry kit. Others have flown in from Amsterdam with traces of (legal there) pot in their system and were jailed for failing a drug test. Do your homework on what is and isn’t permitted before bringing anything potentially suspect into the country.

2. Don’t Drink in Public

Dubai is one of the most liberal locations in the Muslim world when it comes to booze consumption. However you have to respect the rules, be discreet and not cross the line or you could be in big trouble. Foreign residents are allowed to drink alcohol at home if they obtain a license. You can get this online or at a bottle shop, but you’ll need permission from your employer. Travelers and expats can also imbibe at licensed hotels, but don’t overdo it. Public inebriation is not tolerated here, so go easy on that all-you-can-drink champagne brunch, nightclub or bar binge. Once you step out of the venue and appear even slightly tipsy you may be charged. And, please, never ever drive while under the influence. They’ll throw the book at you, so this is definitely one of the things not to do in Dubai.

3. Watch Your Photography

Many travelers to foreign lands want to capture pictures of local people in their national dress as a photographic souvenir of their trip. However, you must be respectful of local customs and conventions when it comes to this. In Dubai it is considered rude and intrusive to snap shots of people, especially women, without expressed permission.

4. Don’t Pucker Up in Public

Public displays of affection are considered indecent in Dubai, so keep your make-out sessions completely private. A few years back a British couple was jailed for having sex on a beach, but even lesser affectionate gestures can get you in trouble too. One twosome was arrested for locking lips in the back of a taxi – that’s not private enough here. Even a casual peck on the cheek between friends should be avoided. You do see some married couples or same-sex pals holding hands, but this is a grey area. It’s best to refrain from all forms of PDA to stay on the safe side.

5. No Song and Dance

Playing loud music and dancing in the streets is one of the things not to do in Dubai. Put away that boombox and resist the urge to bust a move unless you’re on an official dance floor.

6. Watch Your Tongue

No public cussing here, please. A tourist was charged with saying “what the f***” to an undercover policeman a while back. Bite your tongue and keep the insults, profanity and vulgar language to yourself. And do not under any circumstances spout any blasphemous or disparaging remarks against Islam in Dubai. This is considered a serious, punishable offense and more than a handful of foreigners have been jailed for making an off-the-cuff comment. Just have a little cultural sensitivity and refrain from any utterances that may be deemed insulting to Muslims. Furthermore, making negative comments about the ruling families or even prominent Emirati businessmen should be avoided. You may have all sorts of opinions and insights, but keep them to yourself or carefully whispered amongst your inner circle of trusted confidants to avoid trouble. Freedom of speech is not a universal right.

7. Keep Style Sensible

Dubai is a stylish cosmopolitan city with all the latest designer fashions from around the world, but there has been a recent crackdown on women wearing tight, short, low-cut, skimpy or suggestive clothing in public spaces. You’ll see signs about this modesty campaign posted in the Dubai malls. This rule seems open to interpretation and hard to police, but keep your clothing relatively conservative (i.e.: don’t flash a lot of skin and curves) and you should be fine rather than fined.


8. No Nudity

This one should go without saying, but nudity is not allowed in public places. Appropriate swimwear is okay at the beach, pool or water parks, but women must refrain from going topless. And men, keep that six-pack undercover and put a shirt on when walking through the streets, even on the jogging paths.

9. Keep Your LGBT Lifestyle on the QT

While other places in the world are getting more accepting of LGBT lifestyles, the UAE is definitely not a place to flaunt it. Any sexual relations outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage is considered a crime in Dubai. Even cross-dressing is illegal here. There is an underground gay scene in Dubai, but crackdowns happen and you’d be safer to avoid it. Same-sex couples should refrain from any PDA, just like heterosexual couples should. Be who you are, but be discreet and you shouldn’t have any issues.


10. Watch Your Wallet

Dubai has a relatively low crime rate and one tends to get complacent about basic street smarts after a while. However, petty opportunistic crime does happen here, as everywhere. Put your purse down or flash your wallet around and you could be asking for trouble. Use the same kind of precautions as you would in any big city. Better to be vigilant than sorry.

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