With its stunning beaches, towering architecture and year-round warm temperatures, Dubai is high on many lists as a holiday destination. But if you’re heading there for the first time, you really ought to find out what you’re letting yourself in for. That’s because there are some strict – and sometimes strange – laws you must obey in the United Arab Emirates. Thankfully, this list will inform you of what they are, so you don’t fall foul of the law. From messaging mishaps to car washing conundrums, here are 40 rules you may have broken without even knowing!
40. Barred from the balcony
When on vacation, how often do you hang your wet towels and clothes out to dry on the balcony? It’s a pretty common thing to do, but you are forbidden from doing it in Dubai. Why, though? According to Emirates247.com, doing so could affect the beauty of the city and potentially create a fire hazard. Also, no satellite dishes or rubbish can be on the balconies either, or a fine of up to $400 could be coming your way.
39. Keep your car clean
Have you got a vehicle that hasn’t been through a car wash recently? You might want to avoid Dubai if so. Parking your dirty motor in a public place could see you slapped with a fine of nearly $140, The Economic Times notes. And it’s probably worth just paying up if you’re in this position, because the authorities will impound the car if you don’t!
38. You can’t wash a dirty car yourself in public
Picture the scene: you get into your car in Dubai and before opening the door, you notice how much dirtier it is than the other motors on the street. There’s a hose in a nearby garage, so you consider heading over there to give your car a clean. Think again! UAE law means that vehicle owners cannot clean their own cars in public, and they must go to a licensed car wash with accredited workers.
37. Be careful what you film
Do you like filming stuff when you’re abroad? Well, maybe think twice before hitting that record button if you’re in Dubai. In 2013 the authorities jailed and later released an American man who’d made a parody video about youth culture in the city. Another individual was arrested that same year after sharing a film he had made showing a government official attacking a motorist.
36. Avoiding showing the soles of your shoes
A curious no-no in Dubai and many other Arabic countries is showing the soles of your feet. Shoes are considered dirty, because who knows where they’ve been, right? On that note, also be sure to take them off when going indoors.
35. No eating or drinking on public transport
After wandering about in the oppressive heat of Dubai, you might think of taking a sip of your water after entering the public metro system. Well, don’t. According to The Culture Trip, drinking and eating on public transport could see you pay nearly $40 in fines.
34. Left hand law-breaking
If you are spotted by the Dubai authorities eating with your left hand, you just might be punished for it. There is, however, a logic behind the rule. The left hand is considered unclean in Arab culture because we use it to wash ourselves in the bathroom. So, lefties, you best practice eating with your right hand before traveling!
33. Don’t play dress-up
While visiting Dubai you might feel the urge to fit in by donning the local dress to walk around. But according to The Culture Trip, you really shouldn’t. It’s actually seen as disrespectful for foreigners to don such clothes. The only time you can do it is when invited by an Emirati to do so – such as on a desert safari.
32. Do not engage in plane spotting
Plane spotting is a popular pursuit for some keen photographers. But if you’re in Dubai, you’d better refrain from doing it. The United Arab Emirates government does not take kindly to the pastime. Three U.K. friends were caught plane spotting near Fujairah International Airport, and The Guardian reported they were detained and accused of spying. Wowzers.
31. Don’t share a hotel with someone who’s not your spouse
You might want to consider another holiday destination if you plan on staying in a hotel with an unmarried partner. That’s because it’s actually illegal to share a room with a member of the opposite sex with whom you’re not married or closely related to. You’ve been warned!
30. Don’t promote overseas charities
In 2017 an Australian man called Scott Richards found himself on the wrong side of the law in Dubai for the most curious of reasons. Unaware of laws prohibiting individuals from promoting overseas charities, he’d shared a Facebook post in support of an organization supporting refugees in Afghanistan. Richards was later released from prison, but the lesson was surely learned!
29. Be careful where you sniffle
Having a runny nose isn’t a crime, is it? Well, in Dubai it might be worth keeping a tissue handy! In 2017 an unnamed British woman who was a little under the weather was accused of snorting illicit substances on her flight to Dubai, according to News.com.au.
28. Check your notes
Now we know using fake currency is a crime, but what if you accidentally used it in Dubai? Well, Billy Barclay from Edinburgh, Scotland, found out the hard way. His counterfeit money saw him handcuffed and marched off to jail as his wife and children looked on. It’s surely good practice, then, to check your notes carefully.
27. Dubai has a dim view of dissenters
People visiting Dubai need to be very careful about what they write or say about the government there. Amnesty International notes that it is actually illegal to be critical of the authorities, its officials, the royals or the police. That kind of thing can get you arrested and in serious trouble, so watch out.
26. Watch your air conditioning
You might be staying in a villa in Dubai minding your own business and thinking you’re staying out of trouble. But then your air conditioning unit begins leaking, and you have to face the full force of the law. According to Emirates247.com, accidental leakage of an air conditioning unit’s water – or any kind of H2O – on the pavement or roads can land you a fine of just over $25.
25. Don’t talk about Qatar
The United Arab Emirates has its friends and enemies. And one of those foes in recent times has been Qatar. In June 2017 the government introduced a law that made it illegal to show sympathy for the rival Gulf nation online, in print or vocally. There was a slight thawing of relations in 2021, though, so watch this space.
24. Cross-dressing is forbidden
The United Arab Emirates is a modern business and travel hub, but it’s also very conservative. According to BirminghamLive, Dubai has laws against cross-dressing which could see you fined or even put in jail.
23. Avoid cat-calling
A woman being whistled at on the street is unfortunately still a fairly common thing in western countries such as the United States and Britain. But this kind of thing is a lot rarer in Dubai. The Khaleej Times notes that any action which makes women feel uncomfortable – such as dropping phone numbers, long stares and cat-calls – can lead to a fine or even a prison sentence.
22. Don’t play loud music
Are you one of those people who likes to play your portable stereo on the beach or around the pool? Well, this kind of thing is generally frowned upon in Dubai. And during Ramadan it is a punishable crime, the website Imonholidays notes. The city actually closes all its nightclubs and bars during this sacred month in the Islamic calendar. Yep, best put those headphones on!
21. Avoid the ‘okay’ sign
You might think that throwing the “okay” sign with your hand to a local would be acceptable in Dubai. But you’d be wrong. According to the website ScoopWhoop, it actually represents the evil eye in Arabic culture. Therefore, if a restauranteur asks if your food is good and everything is alright, then just answer in the affirmative.
20. Dancing decree
Dancing is allowed in certain nightspots in Dubai, though there are rules you must follow to avoid getting in trouble. So, what are they? The authorities do not take kindly to any kind of dirty or amorous dancing and will punish those seen doing it, according to Imonholidays. You’re welcome to dance how you like in your hotel room or a private club, but watch your moves in public bars!
19. Men-only greetings
If you have visited Dubai, you’ll know that the native Emirati people are very keen on being hospitable to guests and showing off their culture. Personal greetings often include hugs, kisses and praises to Allah. But be warned: The Culture Trip says that you should not shake an Emirati woman’s hand unless they hold out theirs. Also, avoid warm embraces and kisses, too.
18. Try not to swear
If you are someone who curses a fair bit, then going to Dubai is an extremely bad idea for you. That’s because swearing in public is a crime in the United Arab Emirates. As per The Culture Trip, Article 373 of the UAE Penal Code asserts that it “disgraces the honor or the modesty” of a person. It adds that cursing could you land in prison for up to a year with a fine on top of up to nearly $3,000.
17. Best to bypass the binoculars
It’s quite a nice thing to use a pair of binoculars on holiday. But you should resist the urge to use them in Dubai, as there’s a good chance you could get in trouble doing so. According to BirminghamLive, binoculars, satellite phones, recording devices and powerful cameras are items which may need a license for use here.
16. Do not gossip online
We all like indulging in a bit of tittle-tattle now and then, right? It seems innocent enough, but in Dubai gossiping – particularly on social media – can see you locked up for three years and fined up to $275,000, according to The Culture Trip. So, be careful what you post.
15. Don’t call people over with your finger
There are a number of hand signals that you might otherwise deem harmless or indeed complimentary. Yet in Dubai they could be quite insulting to the locals. Take beckoning a person with your finger, for instance. This is offensive to Emirati Arabs, the website Just Landed notes, because the gesture is used by them to summon dogs.
14. Kissing is off limits
Couples like to kiss – particularly new ones. Though puckering up in public can land you in big trouble in Dubai. Yes, public displays of affection – from kissing to holding hands – are not allowed here. In 2010 two British friends were thrown in jail for a month for allegedly kissing in a restaurant, according to News.com.au.
13. Inadvertent physical contact can lead to jail time
We’ve all been there: you’re in a packed bar and your drink is full to the brim and at risk of spilling. So, you tap the person nearby who looks like they may knock it over. This is exactly what happened to Scottish man Jamie Harron while in Dubai in 2017. He ended up spending three months in jail for “public indecency” and even lost his job in the process.
12. Flip the bird at your own risk
Flipping the bird or making a known obscene gesture is not a pleasant thing to do anywhere. Though in Dubai it’s actually against the law. Yes, sticking your middle finger up at someone can land you in jail, as U.K. citizen Jamil Ahmed Mukadam discovered in 2017. According to The Guardian, he’d flipped the bird at a driver tailgating his hire car.
11. Don’t get drunk and disorderly
Being drunk and disorderly in any country is not a good idea, obviously. But in Dubai the behavior is deemed to be extremely offensive – particularly given the fact that Emerati locals don’t drink. Tipsy behavior can land you in prison here, so be careful.
10. Never check someone else’s phone
Have you ever sneakily checked your partner’s phone to see what they’re up to? Well, we wouldn’t recommend doing so in Dubai, as the UAE has very stringent privacy laws. According to MailOnline, a British woman was jailed for three months in 2018 after transferring data from her husband’s phone without his consent or knowledge.
9. Flirting is forbidden
Most of us who have worked in an office have seen a bit of flirting between the opposite sexes. But we strongly recommend not doing it in Dubai. Anyone engaging in this kind of thing could land themselves in some serious trouble. Flirting is viewed as disrespecting women here. According to the lawyer Ashish Mehta, you could be looking at a year’s jail time, deportation or a heavy fine.
8. Photographing people without their permission is prohibited
We all love taking photos on vacation, right? The pictures help capture memories of special times with family and friends. Though in Dubai you have to be very careful when taking photographs, as you can fall foul of local laws if you snap people without their consent. The Daily Mirror newspaper notes that numerous men have been taken into custody for allegedly photographing females on the beach. And the fines are substantial.
7. Be careful with the pictures you post online
Have you ever seen something outside which you didn’t like and subsequently taken a photo of it to share on social media? Well, an Australian woman in Dubai wasn’t impressed after seeing a car parked across a disabled parking space in 2015, and she posted a picture of it on Facebook. But strict UAE cybercrime laws meant that she was subsequently arrested. You’ve been warned!
6. Avoid giving the thumbs up
Giving the thumbs up can never be offensive, can it? Erm, yes it can, actually. In Dubai and other parts of the Arab world, it is roughly the equivalent of flipping the bird, according to the website Step Feed. So, if the waiter asks if everything is okay with your meal in Dubai, just give them a smile and say yes.
5. Beware of your underwear
Though it is more liberal than other neighboring countries, the United Arab Emirates is still a conservative country with elements of Muslim Sharia law enshrined in its constitution. And in Dubai, for instance, they are very strict about dressing modestly. The Daily Mirror says that visitors should be sure to cover the tops of their legs and arms. Also, make sure any underwear is not visible.
4. Don’t flaunt what you eat during Ramadan
You might be surprised to learn that eating and drinking in public could land you in prison in the United Arab Emirates. Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The law only applies during the month of Ramadan, when locals fast from dawn until dusk.
3. Watch what you type
Swearing on messaging platforms in Dubai could land you in pretty hot water. A British woman discovered this in 2021 after cursing at her flatmate during a WhatsApp conversation. She was later put into custody after trying to board a flight home. Defaming someone on a social media platform can lead to fines of up to nearly $140,000 or a year in prison, according to The Independent.
2. Poppy-seed snacks are a big no
Many of us have enjoyed a bread, bagel or sweet that was covered in poppy seeds. But don’t even think about doing so in Dubai. Poppy seeds are seriously frowned upon in the United Arab Emirates, as they originate from heroin and opium. So, don’t bring anything with so much as one seed on it into the country, or you could pay for it in prison time. One poor Swiss man was jailed for four years on drugs possession charges after being found with four poppy seeds from a bagel he had eaten, the Daily Express notes.
1. Be careful you don’t have something illegal stuck to your shoe
Now, we’ve all stood on something by mistake – from dog dirt to chewing gum. But visitors to Dubai need to be extra careful of what they step on. Take British tourist Keith Brown, for instance. BBC News notes that he received a four-year jail sentence after customs officials found 0.003 grams of marijuana stuck to his shoe.