Sharia Law and the UAE: What You Need to Know

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There are many reasons why the UAE has such a low crime rate compared to the rest of the world.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, UAE Photo © Getty Images/Thamer Al-Hassan

UAE has strict laws governing unmarried couples, photography, other faiths and debts. Here's how you can avoid getting arrested.

Sharia law in the United Arab Emirates

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.

Public displays of affection in the UAE

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.

Harrassment towards women in the UAE

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.

Discussing faith in the UAE

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 laws in the UAE

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.

Paying your bill in the UAE

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.

Boating in the UAE

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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  • Patrick said

    I was a little wild as a teen ager. I converted to Islam. The worst thing I did was have sex in public. If I stay to myself, do you think that I would get into any trouble if I was discreet about my past? Thank you so much!

  • Bre said

    Char, if this really happened to you, I hope you have healed. I must say that your incident sounds fantastical. I am an American woman living in the UAE and know plenty of expats that have never had any issues. I find it interesting that you say a group of Muslim men... How do you know they were Muslim? It seems to me you are trying desperately to paint a bad picture of Islam at the expense of an entire country. The Emirates is the safest place I have ever lived and in a society where they take harassment, rape, or any violation of your space or rights seriously, what you have said here is disheartening. I wish you would think before posting things like this.

  • Fer said

    Bre, looks like you are paid by Sharia co
    And yes, it is very bad to tell if you are abuse, Sharia Law...that exactly
    what Char is saying.
    And only hope you healed, what about justice.
    when people will realize that religion is just a way to control people, for the benefit
    of a few on top.

  • Mohamed Saleh said

    Wish Dubai had Mutawas, Jade Callaghan, employee number 441912 at Emirates Airlines refuses to comply with this Islam laws. She continuously post racist remarks on twitter(#fukthatniga) she mocks Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, introspection and prayer, she posts pics of her kissing a girl and drunk in public on her social media platforms,.
    No use in reporting to Emirates management cause the fail to act on it.
    We are tired of her behavior and it feels like Emirates does not care. Should we escalate our efforts to ensure that UAE President Sheikh Khalifabin Zayed Al Nahyan, Print Media, Online Media, Bloggers and all Emirates employees are informed of the lack of interest shown by Emirates Airlines?
    Or do we just let a girl continue to break laws important to us?

  • Corey said

    did not enjoy my trip to UAE Dubai at all, not one bit. that religion's law running all those middle east country from 7th century is so very bad. men feel like they are normal and women are violated there rights, freedoms and life's. Makes there culture look stupid, why think most of them try leave that part of world but they wont let them fly anywhere other then third world places without visa, terrible place, would never convert.

  • Paul Fishman said

    The best thing to do for world travelers based upon the above comments is to stay out of U A E and ALL Islamic countries. They are strict on Sharia and hate enemy unbelievers who dont follow the religion of Islam strictly. Go other places that are not Islamic and more friendly.

  • Jade Callaghan said

    Dubai is great, we drink, we go clubbing, we have sex, no problem don't let blogs scare you.
    No one will arrest you, guaranteed!

  • Vanessa said

    These laws helped me with my report but got me scared about UAE. I'm just a kid so.. this helped me some.

  • Wow said

    Bre you're unreal! Wake up

  • Mark said

    Not really UAE related, but I just wanted to chip in that Indonesia has the world's highest concentration of indigenous muslims and it's by far the friendliest place I ever visited. Come on people, live a little, behave sensibly, and stop spreading hate.

  • william P MacFarlane said

    I lived in various muslim countries , I've never had a problem .
    As long as you respect local traditions and laws , everything is fine .
    I'm not muslim , but respect others beliefs.

  • NC said

    The recent story of the British tourist lady reporting rape and getting arrested involved her and 2 other British tourist males after a night out. They probably suspected something else, not that that is acceptable, but had it happened with a local I'm sure it would have been a different outcome. The tourism industry is of huge value to U.A.E and Dubai city especially.

    I have a friend from University who was visiting another one of our friends and her family, who moved to Dubai a while back, during the holidays. One day they were at a water park and she was one of the few wearing just a bikini (apparently its acceptable but only at the beach and other such places as water parks etc. A group of 6 locals not from the city who had probably never even seen a white English girl before never mind a girl in a bikini cornered her and started to grope her and put their hands inside her bikini. They managed to catch 2 of them and chopped off their hands (only told her this after it had happened) while expressing their sincere apologies and promising to try to track down the other 4.

    You can form your own personal opinions on that but I wouldn't say that it is all bad. Tourism from the west is greatly values there however much they dislike our cultures and carefree attitudes towards sexual relations an alcohol. I think the point shows that if you haven't been drinking etc and abiding by their norms then they'll take you seriously, however in the case of the birtish girl claiming rape they probably feel that alcohol and bad sexual relations go hand in hand, although I'm sure we can all agree on that. (This is not me making out that non consensual sex is ok while drunk or in any other way shape or form! It's completely not!)

  • Traveoport said

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. Very informative and very good pictures.

  • Jade Callaghan said

    NC, your comment is a load of shit.
    Bikini's, alcohol and affection happens at these water parks.
    Lots of guys meet up with girls there and it leads to sex.
    Don't scare the people.

    If Dubai what you say how does prostitution and escort agencies flourish?

  • Andy said

    Wow. Sad to see so many ignorant people still around. If your stuck in your bubble and don't travel then don't comment on other countries. Get a life and get a ticket to a 'backward' country or be quiet and keep your hate in your own thoughts and don't spread it

  • Austin said

    Well I just feel like if you respect certain traditions it would lead to a better experience. Not every single muslim is a barbarian jesus christ people have some sense. Yes there are laws we dont agree with and yes there are laws that are very wrong in most cases but damn not everyone thinks that way

  • Janat said

    I am working in security company as a lady security guard, I was accepted Islam one year before that time our supervisor Muslim and I don't have any problem in my job in these days one Hindu supervisor creating many problems for me on religion because before my religion Hindu he hate me too much in this company I need help if anyone guide me what I do and how I continue my job I am too much worried plz anyone help me guide me Because I change my religion he is not my relative why he interfering my personal life I have shahada paper from Ajman court Islam accept certificate Alhamdulillah I am good Muslim from one year

  • Savannah said

    What if an expat women is working in UAE without husbands permission? As per Sharia law, can she be deported? What is the procedure for this process.

  • Tales Elias said

    Many of the laws in the UAE are based on Sharia law and you should keep that in mind at all times. Not all of the laws are apply! Plz refer to Sharia law and Muslims Law in UAE and check all the laws in UAE.

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  • Iram manzoor said

    Want to ask about divorce law

  • Erwin said

    wow... Sharia as base for law. If they love it they can keep it but I as a westener will never ever go there, not even for a stopover, not for a job that triples my current income (and my current income is considerable high), not for free scholarship of any kind. Although I speak arabic and english this place is not made for me or for my wife (imaginge, dresscode violations are crimes with prison sentence) or my children (how they are going to find a mate? arranged marriage?)

  • muhammad nabeel said

    hi we want marry in the court so lady already convert into islam now court requriment for lady to get guardian permission they are not living in dubai and they are not allowing to get marry with muslim now how we can get marry in the court we are not able to hire lawyer

  • Chtis said


    My wife was a Muslim but now she changed in to Hinduism. What happens if UAE police find that my wife change from Muslim religion?

    Thank You

  • Khalifa said

    As a Muslim I'm allowed to practise my faith and beliefs openly in the western world.

    But a non Muslim is forbidden in a Muslim country

    Is this equality, does these double standards create disharmony?

    As a Muslim I'm allowed to protest and voice my opinion against the governments in western world.

    But a non Muslim or a Muslim is not allowed to protest against Muslim governments.

    Is this democracy?

  • Kannan said

    The department of civil engineering has been in existence in Matha College of Technology since 2012. The department also has its very own association named CIVICUS which also aims at development of leadership as well as technical skills among the students.

  • Mustafa Al-Habib said

    Who in their right mind would ever travel to a place like this?

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