The law in Abu Dhabi

Debunking the myths and how the rules apply to you Comments

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Former US President Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘No man is above the law and no man is below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.’ He was highlighting the idea that the law is there for a reason: to protect us all. Now, whether you’re an Abu Dhabi resident, passing through or simply here on holiday the same thing applies. There are rules, customs and a culture that need to be observed, respected and upheld – just like every other country on the planet.

There’s often a perception (generally fuelled by ill-informed word of mouth and urban legend) that the law in Abu Dhabi is inconsistent or stricter than anywhere else, whereas the reality is, arguably, somewhat different. Although it’s fair to suggest the United Arab Emirates is generally considered one of the more liberal and forward-thinking Gulf countries, it’s also a young, continually evolving nation and there can be occasions when legal grey areas may crop up. Equally, particularly if you’ve come from abroad, deciphering a new network of legal statutes that, perhaps, don’t correlate with what you’re used to can leave some people feeling a little confused.

At this point we could probably throw a bunch of mind-boggling figures and statistical analysis at you. But rather than muddy the waters further we’re going to keep this simple and outline some of the most common laws you’re likely to encounter on a frequent basis in the city, from driving and public decency right through to tenancy and cohabitation. To ensure that our guidelines and information are as clear and accurate as possible we’ve also enlisted the help of a legal expert from a respected Abu Dhabi law firm. Please read on and, more importantly, be safe.

Consumer rights
Unlike in many other countries, if you buy something, get it home and decide you don’t like it or you’ve seen it somewhere else for less, you can’t take it back – unless you’ve reached a specific agreement with the retailer. On the other hand if the product you’ve bought has a defect that you’ve noticed during the warranty period you’re entitled to a refund or repair. If a retailer tries to fob you off by only giving store credit you can report them – you’re entitled to a cash refund. New consumer rights protection measures have recently been introduced to safeguard against bad retail practices such as price manipulation or poor quality of food. Go to to find out how to make a complaint and the steps to take should you need to follow it up.

Tenancy and cohabitation

Subletting This is completely illegal in Abu Dhabi. There may be instances where a tenant comes to an arrangement with the landlord of the property but if a property is sublet without prior permission, the tenant could face eviction before the end of the lease and could well lose the remainder of the rent they have already paid. Whoever you rent from, make sure they are either the landlord or at the very least someone who is authorised to rent the property.

Agents It’s advisable to only deal with registered agents. If you’re dealing with an agent who asks for payment in cash there’s a chance they may well be unlawful. Be sure to check up on whatever agents, companies and owners you’re dealing with.

Living arrangements Men and women living together who are not part of the same family throws up a few legal questions but it is still something of a grey area. In practice some people who do co-habit (for example colleagues sharing a villa to save on rent) come and go without major complications. But should arrangements be raised with the police for any reason they will
have to investigate the situation and it’s worth bearing in mind that these kind of living arrangements are technically illegal.

It’s illegal for single people to live in some areas. Some residential areas in Abu Dhabi such as Mushrif and Mansur are designated for families. The main rule is that single people are not allowed to live in villas unless they are specifically designed for that purpose, with segregation licensed by the Municipality.

Bachir Nawar, Legal Director, Berwin Leighton Paisner, LLP:
‘Irrespective of religion or nationality, people who are not married are in principle forbidden from living together. Consensual relations between unmarried persons will be punished with a one-year prison sentence. Whether these situations can be policed is uncertain but one must remember even if such offences are quite circumstantial the law enforcement will not be questioned.’

Public decency

Married couples The law is very clear on this. Only married couples are allowed to hold hands in public but even they are not allowed to kiss or cuddle in public. Any public displays of affection of this nature are strictly prohibited, particularly during Ramadan, and could even result in deportation or the possibility of facing a criminal conviction.

Single men Approaching women randomly in public is not allowed and doing so could land you in serious trouble. Don’t do it.

Flashing flesh When on the beach it’s advisable to avoid wearing bathing suits that could be classed as skimpy, such as thongs. Always opt for a more conservative option. Also, when leaving the beach ensure you cover up. This applies to both men and women. Aside from the beach it’s advisable to avoid wearing mini-skirts or hot pants. Anything that could be classed as obscene, transparent or indecently exposing parts of the body are a big no no.

Tattoos Always err on the side of caution and cover them up because the law is still a bit grey on this, but it’s a given that any potentially insensitive tattoos could land you in
a spot of bother.

Bachir says:
‘This applies to women and men alike and is an issue of cultural threshold inherent to UAE and the Islamic culture in general. What is tolerated as insignificant in terms of women’s attire could be deemed shocking in the UAE. Women should choose appropriate clothing so as not to offend the local culture, i.e. not exposing too much flesh. This is in line with the values and respect afforded to women by the Islamic Shariaa Law and is often reflected in society through common beliefs and customs. Dubai and Sharjah are dotted with Codes of Conduct which set out what falls within the acceptable parameters of decency. For example, displays of affection between couples – whether married or not – in public places does not fit the local customs and culture. Abu Dhabi does not have a Code of Conduct of its own but this does not mean the same principles applicable in neighbouring Dubai do not apply.’


The law around alcohol, particularly for tourists, is one area that often causes confusion. Although it is possible to consume alcohol in certain designated areas such as licensed restaurants and bars attached to hotels, you can still be arrested once you’re outside of that establishment if it’s brought to the attention of the police. For example, if you’re drunk and disorderly in a public place the UAE penal code is very clear: zero tolerance. In severe cases you could be fined between Dhs1,000 to Dhs2,000 and face a jail term of between one and six months. Those caught drunk driving (by the way, the rule is not even one sip of alcohol should cross your lips when driving) can face a lengthy jail term, a fine, deportation and confiscation of their vehicle. Again, zero tolerance. In short, an alcohol licence allows you to purchase alcohol but it doesn’t allow you to drink it or be drunk in public places.
For more information on how to apply go to

Bachir says:
‘Alcohol is available to non-Muslims and the legal drinking age is 21. Alcohol is only allowed to be served in hotels. One can buy alcohol for private consumption however a liquor licence is required (this is an online application these days). There is zero tolerance on drinking and driving throughout the UAE and if caught one risks jail and is likely to lose insurance coverage so it is advisable to take a taxi. Drinking in public, outside of a hotel or being caught inebriated is not tolerated.’


This one is quite simple: all recreational drugs are forbidden – even the most miniscule amount. Consuming or carrying drugs can result in prison. If you’re caught buying or selling narcotics you’re potentially looking at a death sentence. Also, be careful if you’re on medication that contains psychotropic substances because some of these are actually also banned in the UAE and you may need prior permission to bring them into the country. Have a look at for more details.

Bachir says:
‘Drugs and even certain medications are strictly banned in the UAE and the penalties are rather severe with a minimum of four years in prison for use. Selling the drug is another question that may attract 15 years in jail and could be followed by the death sentence depending on the gravity of the offence. However the death sentence is not something simple to declare in the UAE and the procedure goes through thorough scrutiny which gives the judges examining the matters enough margins to assess the adequate sanction. Beware that some medication that may be sold over the counter in one’s home country are banned here and it is worth checking this before arrival, as even the smallest amount in one’s bloodstream could lead to prison.’

By Time Out Abu Dhabi staff
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

User reviews:

Posted by: Rajesh r Nair on 30 Sep ' 14 at 17:11

I want to know about the tattoo. I have a tattoo in my left side ofmy chest.can u explain me about I got a job in Dubai. I know about tattoo is prohibited in Dubai. Is their any problem.can u help me.

Posted by: Rajesh r Nair on 30 Sep ' 14 at 17:09

About tattoo. I have one tattoo in left side of my chest.

Posted by: Ariel Fredrickson Gara on 11 Nov ' 12 at 07:51

Thanks for the great article! I recently relocated here with my husband for his job, and I have heard many things about what may or may not be illegal or offensive. I will definitely re-post on my blog,

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