Many of the laws in the UAE are based on Sharia law and you should keep that in mind at all times.
For starters, like many Middle Eastern countries, the UAE has the death penalty for serious crimes such as murder, rape, and treason. Drug trafficking also attracts the death penalty; refer to the section on drugs for more information.
Common law relationships, homosexuality, cross-dressing, adultery, and all of these are subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment and deportation, and for Muslim travellers, a high probability of corporal punishment as well.
Just to be clear, yes, sex between unmarried couples is considered illegal in the UAE.
This legal attitude extends to even minor public displays of affection such as holding hands and kissing in public which are socially unacceptable in the UAE and there have been arrests for such behaviour.
Of course there'd be no tourism industry at all if there weren't slightly different rules in the confines of the western hotels, but even there, don't go overboard!
Bearing all of this in mind, it should come as no surprise that as in many other Middle Eastern countries you should dress conservatively and that there are laws governing this.
Public nudity, topless, nude sunbathing and quite obviously, sex on the beach are all illegal as some travellers found out fairly recently.
Dress codes are enforced by legal authorities and dressing in a "provocative manner" generally attracts other unwanted attention. If you're not sure what dress style is appropriate, have a look at what the local people are wearing and ask for some advice. This is VERY important in Sharjah and Ajman where Shariah law is strictly enforced.
Despite the fact that harassment of female travellers does occur in the UAE (although admittedly only rarely) harassment of women is illegal in the UAE. Harassment includes unwanted touching, conversation, insults, rude gestures, glaring, shouting, stalking, and just about anything you would normally consider to be rude basically. Hopefully this is of no concern to you, because you don't behave like that anyway.
Distributing and preaching non-Islamic religious material to Muslims is punishable by imprisonment and deportation, although it doesn't work the other way around. This may even include a simply discussion of over faiths and people have been deported for just that reason, even when they didn't think they were preaching at all. So while you may think that you're discussing the benefits of the latest Bikram Yoga class, they may classify that as preaching the benefits of Hinduism.
During the holy month of Ramadan, eating, drinking, smoking is forbidden between sunrise and sunset, and non-Muslims are expected to follow this principle in public as well. Again, western-style hotels are an exception and have facilities to cater for non-Muslims during this time, but strictly speaking it is illegal, so if you carry-on like an idiot when they throw the book at you it might be the Qu'oran.
Photography is a hobby you have to be very careful with in the UAE. Taking photos of people (particularly women) you haven't met before and who haven't given you their permission is illegal and can lead to arrest or fines.
Taking photos of government buildings which have signs prohibiting photography is an extremely bad move, very illegal and can lead to imprisonment, fines and general unpleasantness.
Any form of hobby that involves cameras, binoculars or telescopes may well be misunderstood by military or police officials if practiced anywhere near a government building, military site or airport. Of course, by misunderstood I mean they may arrest you, confiscate your equipment and wonder what it was you found so interesting about their military base. So, leave the bird watching or plane spotting for places where you're less liable to look like youre up to something dodgy basically.
In keeping with this attitude, equipment such as satellite phones, radio transmitters, listening or recording devices, powerful cameras with a zoom lens, binoculars or telescopes which may be legal elsewhere, may require a licence of use in the UAE, so be sure to check if that is the case.
They don't like fraud all that much in the UAE and to prove it, bouncing a cheque or non-payment of a bill (including hotel bills) is taken very seriously and once again, can result in imprisonment and/or a fine. Non-residents of the UAE arrested for fraud are not usually eligible for bail, and convicted debtors usually have to remain in jail until the debt is either paid or waived.
Be careful if you plan on any recreational boating or fishing near the island of Abu Musa, located approximately 30 kilometres from Dubai. Iran and the UAE have a long-standing disagreement regarding the jurisdiction of Abu Musa. Sailing or fishing in these waters may result in the Iranian Coast Guard saying hello and offering you free accommodation in Iran whether you like it or not.
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The UAE is generally sunny all year, which makes it attractive as a sun-soaked destination for many people. But it can get hot. Seriously hot and can put your health in danger.
By international standards, including western first world standards, the UAE has a very low incidence of crime. However it still worth knowing what to look out for with this guide to crime in the UAE with World Nomads.