What makes United Arab Emirates a unique country to travel to?
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own ruler. The federal government is headed by a president and council of ministers, with the president also serving as the ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Islamic ideals and beliefs provide the foundation of the country's conservative customs, laws, and practices. The UAE has a modern and generally well-developed infrastructure, and tourist facilities are widely available.
Most travelers to the UAE are not impacted by crime. Violent crimes and crimes against property are rare, but do occur. The U.S. Embassy advises all U.S. citizens to take the same security precautions in the UAE that one would practice in the United States or any large city abroad. Although vehicle break-ins are not common, U.S. citizens are encouraged to ensure that unattended vehicles are locked and that valuables are not left in plain sight.
Incidents of verbal and physical harassment as well as isolated cases involving assault of expatriate women have occurred, including some incidents of harassment by taxi drivers. On more than one occasion, expatriate females have been sexually assaulted while walking alone through underground pedestrian walkways near the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Female travelers should keep in mind the cultural differences among the many people who coexist in the UAE and should be cognizant that unwitting actions may invite unwanted attention. Taxi passengers should avoid sitting in the front seat of a taxicab and should be sensitive that "small talk" can be misinterpreted as over-friendliness or even a form of propositioning by some taxi drivers. Victims of harassment are encouraged to report such incidents to the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi or the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai.
Do not buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are these goods illegal in the United States, purchasing them is a violation of local law.
Individuals have been arrested for posting information on Twitter and YouTube that local authorities determined was disturbing to the order of the UAE. Users of social media should be cautious about posting information that might be deemed to insult or challenge the local government.
While you are traveling in the UAE you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places, you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in the UAE, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
As each Emirate has its own independent judicial system, legal procedures and penalties vary throughout the country. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Emirati laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, imprisoned, or prevented from traveling and their passport held by local authorities for extended periods of time. U.S. citizens have been arrested in the past for obscene hand gestures, using inappropriate (foul) language with a police official, and for public displays of affection, such as kissing. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in the United Arab Emirates are severe. Convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences, heavy fines, and deportation. It is possible to be convicted for drug possession based on the result of a drug test even if no other evidence exists, regardless of when or where the consumption originally occurred.
Alcohol and Drugs: Consuming or possessing alcohol without a Ministry of Interior liquor permit is illegal and could result in arrest and/or fines and imprisonment. Alcohol is served at bars in most major hotels but is intended for guests of the hotel. Persons who are not guests of the hotel, and who consume alcohol in the restaurants and bars, technically are required to have their own personal liquor licenses. Liquor licenses are issued only to non-Muslim persons who possess UAE residency permits. Public drunkenness (no matter where the drinking occurred) and driving under the influence, regardless of one’s blood alcohol content level, are considered very serious offenses. Persons arrested on alcohol-related offenses are regularly detained for many days as they await a court hearing. Penalties may include hefty jail sentences, substantial fines and, for Muslims (even those holding U.S. citizenship), lashings. NOTE: Alcohol is permitted in six of the seven emirates, but is prohibited in the emirate of Sharjah.
Legislation enacted in January 1996 imposes the death sentence for convicted drug traffickers. Since January 2006, possession of even trace amounts of illegal drugs has resulted in lengthy prison sentences for foreign citizens transiting the UAE.
Some drugs normally taken under a doctor's supervision in the United States, and even some over-the-counter U.S. drugs and medications, are classified as narcotics in the UAE and are illegal to possess. A doctor's prescription should be carried along with any medication that is brought into the country. A person may be subject to arrest and prosecution if possession of banned medicines (especially those containing codeine and similar narcotic-like ingredients) comes to the attention of local authorities. More information about medications can be found on the website of the UAE Ministry of Health. Most medications available in the United States are also available by doctors’ prescription through hospitals and pharmacies in the UAE.
The UAE's tough anti-narcotics program also includes poppy seeds, widely used in other cultures, including the United States, for culinary purposes, on its list of controlled substances. The importation and possession of poppy seeds in any and all forms, including as dried decorative plants, are strictly prohibited. Persons found to possess even very small quantities of controlled substances listed by the UAE are subject to prosecution by the authorities and may be given lengthy prison terms of up to 15 years.
Travelers with questions regarding the items on the list of controlled substances should contact the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi or the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai. If suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, individuals may be required to submit to blood and/or urine tests and may be subject to prosecution.
Fraud: Crimes of fraud, including passing bad checks and non-payment of bills (including hotel bills), are regarded seriously in the UAE and can result in imprisonment and/or fines. A personal check written as a guarantee for the payment of a personal or business debt may be submitted to a local bank for collection at any time for the full amount of the check. If the account holder does not have sufficient funds, they may be charged with passing a bad check. Bail generally is not available to non-residents of the UAE who are arrested for crimes involving fraud. Debtors can be held in prison until their debts are paid or until an agreement is reached between the parties.
There has been an increase in the amount of email scams seemingly originating from the UAE. U.S. citizens have received emails from police, hospitals, or acquaintances in the UAE stating that a friend or relative needs financial assistance to receive medical attention or to avoid jail time. Recipients of such emails should ask the friend or relative to contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate as soon as possible. The Embassy or Consulate may be able to help such individuals in need or such a suggestion may deter further pleas if they are not genuine.
Religious proselytizing: While individuals are free to worship as they choose, and facilities are available for that purpose, religious proselytizing is not permitted in the UAE. Persons violating this law, even unknowingly, may be imprisoned or deported.
Consular notification: While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
If arrested, U.S. citizens should contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General for assistance. The U.S. Consul will provide information on the local judicial system and a list of local attorneys.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Basic modern medical care and medicines are available in the principal cities of the UAE, but not necessarily in outlying areas.
Safety and Security
U.S. citizens in the United Arab Emirates should exercise a high level of security awareness. The Department of State remains concerned about the global threat of terrorism, including the possibility of terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and interests in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. Both historical and current information suggest that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan attacks against Western targets; these attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassination, kidnapping, hijacking, and bombing. U.S. citizens should maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel, and treat mail and packages from unfamiliar sources with caution. In addition, U.S. citizens should avoid contact with any suspicious, unfamiliar objects and report the presence of the objects to local authorities. U.S. government personnel overseas have been advised to take the same precautions. U.S. government facilities may temporarily close or suspend public services from time to time as necessary to review their security posture and ensure its adequacy.
Taking photographs of UAE military, sensitive civilian sites or foreign diplomatic missions – including the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General – may result in arrest, detention, and/or prosecution by local authorities. In addition, engaging in mapping activities, especially mapping that includes the use of GPS equipment, without coordination with UAE authorities, may have the same consequences.
On several occasions in past years, small groups of expatriate recreational boaters were detained by the Iranian Coast Guard for alleged violation of Iranian territorial waters while fishing near the island of Abu Musa, approximately 20 miles from Dubai. The UAE and Iran have had a long-standing dispute concerning jurisdiction of Abu Musa. Fishing or sailing in these waters may result in seizure of vessels and detention of passengers and crew in Iran. Obtaining consular assistance in Iran is difficult and can only be done through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which acts as a Protecting Power, providing limited U.S. consular services.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in the UAE, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning the United Arab Emirates is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
The police emergency number and ambulance number is 999. Mobile phones are widely used throughout the UAE, so passers-by will usually request emergency police and medical services quickly if they see that you need help. Response time by emergency services is adequate. However, medical personnel emphasize transport of the injured to the hospital rather than treatment on site.
Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in the UAE. According to the World Health Organization, the UAE has the highest rate of road fatalities in the Middle East and one of the highest rates in the world. Drivers often drive at high speeds. Unsafe driving practices are common, especially on inter-city highways. On highways, unmarked speed bumps and drifting sand create additional hazards. Pedestrians should also use great care on the roads of the UAE –over 25 percent of road fatalities are pedestrians.
Country-wide traffic laws impose stringent penalties for certain violations, particularly driving under the influence of alcohol. In the UAE, there is zero tolerance for driving after consumption of alcohol. Persons arrested for drinking and driving are often jailed for many days as they await a court hearing. Penalties may include hefty jail sentences, fines, and, for Muslims (even those holding U.S. citizenship), lashings. Persons involved in an accident in which another party is injured automatically go to jail until the injured person is released from the hospital. Should a person die in a traffic accident, the driver of the other vehicle is liable for payment of compensation for the death (known as "dhiyya"), usually the equivalent of 55,000 U.S. dollars. Even relatively minor accidents may result in lengthy proceedings, during which both drivers may be prohibited from leaving the country.
In order to drive, UAE residents must obtain a UAE driver's license. Foreign driver's licenses are generally not recognized. However, U.S. citizen visitors who are not UAE residents can drive using a valid driver’s license issued by his or her state. An international driver’s license may be required in some emirates. The UAE recognizes driver's licenses issued by other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states only if the bearer is driving a vehicle registered to the same GCC state. Under no circumstances should anyone drive without a valid license.
If you are in an accident, UAE law mandates that you remain at the scene until authorities arrive. The use of front seat belts is mandatory in the UAE and a new law mandating the use of child seats is under consideration with the Ministry of the Interior. Driving is on the right side of the road. Speed limits are posted. Making a right turn on a red light is not permitted unless there is a special lane to do so with a yield sign. Parking is not allowed where the curb is painted black and yellow. Digital cameras are used extensively on Emirati roads for registering traffic violations, including speeding. Fines can be substantial. Passengers with outstanding traffic fines may be detained at airport immigration.