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

The UAE is one of the world’s safest countries, with its capital Abu Dhabi ranked the safest city in the world for the 5th year running in 2021. The secret may well be the UAE’s amalgamation of Sharia and man-made laws.

While Sharia law has infamously strict laws, some of which are difficult to understand in the non-Muslim world, they are supplemented with secular laws providing a blend of laws that befits both Muslims as well as foreign expatriates and visitors. And while the death penalty still exists, as it does in parts of the USA, the laws are there to protect the citizens and foreigners in the country, as well as uphold the cultural and religious traditions. And, looking at the statistics about crime and safety, the approach seems to work.

There are, however, certain aspects travelers should be aware of, to avoid falling foul of the law.

Sharia law in the United Arab Emirates

The official system of law in the UAE is Sharia, which has been developed from the holy Qur’an as well as the Sunnah scriptures, the records of Prophet Muhammad. Sharia law is as much legal law as a moral guide to etiquette and behaviour. The Sharia law is supplemented by other, non-religious laws, and the two go hand in hand.

While much commotion has been made about the strict drug laws, which have in fact been relaxed in 2022 in relation to THC, drug trafficking can still carry the death penalty. See more details about the UAE’s drug laws here.

Equally, the laws on extra-marital cohabitation, and single parenting have been much relaxed in that these are now legal, and laws about rape and sexual assault have been made clearer and more stringent.

While LGBTQ+ relationships are officially illegal, the law does not state outright that they incur the death penalty, and in more relaxed emirates, such as Dubai, there is a below-the-radar scene, and homosexuality, as long as it is not too overtly displayed, is tolerated, if not encouraged. Discretion is the best approach.

Public displays of affection in the UAE

While just a few years ago, you could be arrested for kissing your spouse at the airport, and people have indeed been arrested for a simple kiss, the laws and attitude have much mellowed since, and have indeed been revised to allow non-marital relationships. While it is fine to walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm, the line is drawn at fully blown exhibits of PDA in public.

Modest dressing

As with all Muslim countries, you should arrive with cultural sensitivity and the wish not to offend the local population. While in places such as Dubai, you might laugh at the suggestions, with plenty of tourists running around in beachwear mostly unchallenged, you should, when leaving your hotel, dress modestly, covering shoulders and knees. 

Dress codes are at times enforced by legal authorities, who may turn you away from a public place such as a mall, as much as a restaurant would enforce a certain dress code.  The rules are even more important when traveling outside of the two most relaxed emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, to the emirates of Sharjah, Ajman and beyond, where to population is not as used to tourists.

Harrassment towards women in the UAE

Despite the fact that most women feel very safe traveling solo in the UAE, sexual harassment as well as assault does happen, if rarely. Read this article about what to do if you have been assaulted.

Faith in the UAE

While distributing and preaching non-Islamic religious material to Muslims is punishable by imprisonment and deportation, the UAE is very open to other faiths and even provides churches, synagogues, and temples to its multi-national and multi-faith population.    

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. That said, most western-style hotels keep a restaurant or two open for its guests, and those who wander in from the streets.

Photography laws in the UAE

With privacy, particularly of women, an integral part of the Muslim culture, it is officially illegal to take photographs of people without asking their permission. As well as it being simply polite to ask before you take a picture of someone, you should also refrain from taking images of governmental and military buildings. To operate a drone, not only will you have to adhere to strict guidelines as to where and when to fly them, but you will also need a licence, and an RPAS registration card issued by the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA), to find out more, read these guidelines

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27 Comments

  • 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

    Hello!

    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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