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.