Is It Safe To Travel To The UAE?

Filed Under: Travel

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East the past year or so, and in particular in the UAE. I’m not exactly sure why, but it has just kind of turned out that way. And in a twisted way the UAE has actually really grown on me. That’s in stark contrast to my impressions a bit over two years ago, when I wrote a post entitled “Is the UAE the most depressing place in the world?”

To be clear, I don’t want to lump all of the Middle East into one, because I’m selective in where I go. I love Oman for how “authentic” it is, while there’s something indescribable I like about the UAE.

I’ve received a lot of emails and comments from readers lately that are heading to the UAE, and there are a few questions I get more than any others, which I figured I’d respond to here.

Fountain show at the Dubai Mall

Is traveling to the UAE safe?

Yes, yes, yes. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world I feel safer than the UAE. Seriously.

That’s not to say there isn’t crime, though it almost never involves tourists — it’s typically more domestic in nature.

Why is the UAE so safe?

  • As a tourist you won’t really interact with many locals, since almost all front line employees are from other countries. And for the most part the locals are pretty well off, so it’s not like they’re going to pickpocket you.
  • A vast majority of the people you’ll interact with are from other countries, so if they committed a crime they’d be deported immediately, which prevents crime.

Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building

Will I feel out of place in the UAE?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the terms “melting pot” and “salad bowl” when it comes to describing the citizens in a region.

To me the UAE doesn’t fit anywhere on that spectrum, and is way beyond a “salad bowl.” As someone that’s voluntarily homeless, there’s nowhere in the world where I feel as much a local as in Dubai. When I get in a taxi in London they ask where I’m from. When I get in a taxi in Hong Kong they ask where I’m from. When I get in a taxi in Sydney they ask where I’m from. When I get in a taxi in Dubai, they ask if I live there.

And I guess that’s the beauty of a country where the citizens don’t interact with others very much, and all of the foreigners are kind of left to create the culture of the place.

Beach in Dubai

Can I share a bed with someone I’m not married to?

There seem to be a ton of misconceptions about this, with some even thinking that they’ll get jailed for sharing a bed with someone they’re not married to. If you’re staying at a western hotel chain you should feel comfortable booking a king bed, whether you’re gay or straight or traveling with a friend, sibling, or parent. I would assume the same is true at virtually every other hotel chain as well, though I haven’t stayed at them enough to really chime in.

Again, hotels are almost entirely run by people from other countries, and they couldn’t care less. I’ve never been questioned when sharing a bed with someone, and the worst I’ve been asked is if I want a rollaway. But no matter who you’re traveling with, you should have no trouble sharing a bed with them, if you so desire.

Which is more interesting — Abu Dhabi or Dubai?

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are only about 60-75 minutes apart by car, depending on where in town you are. For first time visitors, I recommend checking them both out, time permitting.

Both cities have their pros. Big picture, I tend to think Abu Dhabi is a bit more authentic, while Dubai is all about the glitz/glam. Purely in terms of staying entertained, I do think Dubai is more interesting. That being said, Abu Dhabi is quickly trying to catch up with Dubai in terms of having the biggest of everything. After all, they basically funded Dubai, and are kind of jealous now.

Burj Al Arab in Dubai

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Overall I give a slight preference to Dubai in terms of staying occupied. But I’d also like to visit a few of the other Emirates besides Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

What about gay rights?

I could probably write a post about that alone, as it’s a tricky question, no doubt.

You can view them either in absolute terms or in relative terms, and you can view them in terms of the law or in terms of how the law is executed in practice.

Are the laws on gays themselves appalling? Yes. Relatively speaking and in practical terms, is the UAE the most progressive in the Middle East? Absolutely. And I think they deserve some credit for that:

  • There are lots of gay people from western countries that choose to move to the UAE, and are perfectly happy there
  • Dubai is a place many people from other parts of the Middle East (including gays) move to escape more oppressive lives
  • There’s plenty of gay nightlife in Dubai, even if it’s slightly underground

I’m not trying to turn this into a topic about gay rights in the UAE, but I do think it’s worth pointing this out, since there are a lot of misconceptions regarding it. And people often call me a pig for choosing to spend a dime in the country.

But I do think there’s something to be said for how relatively progressive they are in practice.

Bottom line

Are Dubai and Abu Dhabi the most exciting places in the world? Nope, far from it. That being said, there’s something so fascinating to me about the UAE, and in particular about Dubai. People say Dubai lacks culture, but I tend to think Dubai has one of the most fascinating cultures out there. It’s indescribable, but seeing so many people live together in relative harmony in a region which is otherwise full of safety issues and oppression is sort of refreshing… at least to me.

  1. i have a lot of family that has chosen to work and raise their kids in the UAE. when people criticize that it’s just a bland sprawl of skyscrapers and malls, their usual response is “ever been to houston?”

  2. women traveling alone? Is this an issue at all in the cities, or on the planes themselves? Is one city or airline better than the other for single women traveling alone?

  3. Hi Ben,
    Really intessting and special the gay issue – Normally you will think these cities as Gay friendly but for few days stopover will be okay I asume after reading your blog.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. The problem with most Gulf states and cities (not Oman) is that they don’t have much of a history and culture. They’re just former fishing villages that got very rich. It’s more fun to travel to Cairo or Istanbul or Damascus (although not these days); even Amman has some traces of a long history. Such cities have depth and texture; you don’t have to go to their historical sites, just walking around you can feel that the city has layers, not just a surface.

    Qatar is buying itself some sweet sweet culture, with its museum and colleges, but that’s not the same as having a culture to begin with. OK, Houston and Las Vegas are no better, but one would not want to go there either.

  5. Are you going to posting about how safe other parts of the world are, and how gay rights there are too? or is it only Ayrabs who get those kinds of posts?

  6. ” People say Dubai lacks culture, but I tend to think Dubai has one of the most fascinating cultures out there. It’s indescribable, but seeing so many people live together in relative harmony in a region which is otherwise full of safety issues and oppression is sort of refreshing… at least to me.”

    I think this is a perfect example of how this is not a destination blog. I predict you are going to get some flack for this part of your post.

  7. I have heard Lebanon is better in terms of gay acceptance, though they are also much less stable than the UAE, so there are tradeoffs.

    I’m curious, what is your impression (if you have any) of how one might be treated traveling as a gay couple on Emirates or Etihad?

  8. Lebanon is a little better than much of the Arab world, but it’s still underground as well. It does have a few gay bars and nightclubs, but people are still protesting for better rights and recognition.

  9. @wwk5d

    As mentioned, this post stems from many questions Lucky has received about this particular region. I’m sure many of it is because of the Christmas “sale” from EY and many people, including myself, are heading there. So no, it’s not just Arabs* that get this post privilege.

  10. Anne,

    I lived in Abu Dhabi for 3 years and can tell you that you’d have no issue as a single woman. As a matter of fact, I felt much safer in the UAE than I often do here in the US. You’ll be fine on just about any airline – I’ve flown emirates, etihad, BA, United and many more to/from the UAE.

    The locals are some of the most kind & friendly people and I found that overall, people were more polite (doors held open, etc) and courtious.

    Use common sense and you’ll be just fine.

  11. Some people seem annoyed about the focus on a US based blog about gay rights in Arab countries vs others, or how safe it might be for a gay person in Muslim countries, or how safe it might be in countries not often frequented by most Americans. The sad fact is that most countries are perfectly safe for everyone. Americans tend to be far more provincial in their travels and experiences compared to citizens from Canada, Europe, Australia/New Zealand, and increasingly Asia…and so their fears are magnified. But the dangers are not comparably larger.

    I am gay, married to my husband in 2010 (in South Africa), and have traveled all over the world, including most recently to supposedly not gay-friendly Rwanda. No issues at all. We flew back on Emirates through Dubai, and (gasp) I’m also Jewish. No issues at all. We’ve been to Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Lebanon, and Turkey. No issues at all. We kissed repeatedly in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow in Oct 2013 not a few months after the Russian anti-gay laws were passed. No issues at all, as it turned out, and I posted those photos to blogs and even Facebook.

    The fact is that I love Muslim countries because the culture is SO clean–it’s really amazing in that regard. (The same was true for Christian Rwanda, FWIW.) Yes, it is conservative, and far more homogeneous than the USA…but it’s just as homogeneous in most parts of Colorado or all of Wyoming or Idaho or the Dakotas or New Hampshire or Vermont or Maine. It’s just as homogeneous as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and plenty of other more liberal nations.

    Most Americans are scared of their own shadows when it comes to foreign travel. (OMG, is it safe to go to Mexico? REALLY?) Gay Americans seem even more scared of their shadows, apparently believing that Muslim countries are dangerous for them…even though they also think the same thing as rural places in the USA! What’s the difference? There are tolerant and nice people everywhere, of all religions, and there are ignorant people and hateful people everywhere, of all religions. America isn’t exactly the hotbed of safety when it comes to violent crime, yet Americans seem so worried about violent crime outside the US borders as if it doesn’t happen here. It’s just American ignorance.

    I’m American. I’m gay. I’m Jewish (well, atheist now, but raised Jewish). I’m married. I like to travel. I love remote locations even more than urban ones. I have never felt unsafe traveling anywhere in the world. And I’ve been to numerous places on the “worrisome” list for most. It’s just fear and paranoia. It’s not realistic.

    Get out and explore. And don’t be afraid to get to places that are wildly different from where you live. That’s how you learn that things aren’t quite what you see on the TV news and that some things abroad are actually better than at home, despite the ridiculous notion that America is best on all things. It’s also how you learn that foreign lands have plenty of curious, tolerant, and kind people from every culture and religion under the sun.

  12. If you are non white, you may find things less comfortable… White guys don’t tend to have many problems with racism in the UAE.

    Not that Ben should have reason to mention that…

  13. Hey Ben,

    I read your blog regularly and I’m a huge fan, and I know your point here is not to get political but to talk about the destination, but since you brought it up I wanted to address your statement:

    “Are the laws on gays themselves appalling? Yes. Relatively speaking and in practical terms, is the UAE the most progressive in the Middle East? Absolutely. And I think they deserve some credit for that:”

    UAE is most definitely NOT the most progressive country in the Middle East. ISRAEL is the only country in the middle east where there are open gay rights (They have parades!), free elections, and the only real democracy (as opposed to monarchy/dictatorship) in the entire Middle East. Israel is the only country in the middle east that has complete freedom of religion. There are Jews, Arabs, and Christians all serving in government. There is no death penalty, so there are no pubic executions (like in Saudi Arabia). The list goes on…

    I know this has very little to do with your post and you were merely discussing pros and cons of visiting the UAE but I had to get my two cents in 🙂

    Thans for blogging and always posting the latest and greatest in the travel/credit card industry.

  14. Interesting post.

    I think the UAE is best described as a black swan environment for alternative lifestyles. That is to say living in the UAE represents a relatively low risk gamble tied to an exceptionally high penalty. In other words if you play it safe the chance of being punished is relatively low but you’re too open about it or just happen to get caught by accident then the punishment is likely to be severe and potentially life altering. Unfortunately the human brain is generally rather bad at recognizing and evaluating black swan risks which is why even severe punishments rarely serve as a true deterrent unless they are also extremely common.

  15. Like the other commenter, i am also a single female working/ living in Abu Dhabi for about 1 1/2 yr now. Used to work/ live in Houston too. I feel very safe here. I like to explore parts of the country by myself and never felt scared (except driving on the roads surrounded by crazy drivers).
    In fact being female sometime gave me an edge eg shorter lines or they had me skipped the line altogether and go to the front.

    As for interesting places, i would go to Al-Ain. Abu Dhabi to me is a working city while Dubai is a huge tourist attraction.

  16. You have to visit Sharjah, it’s beautiful and full of culture and museums, it’s like how the Dubai and Abu Dhabi were in the 80s

  17. My understanding was that TLV (Israel) was the most progressive place with respect to gay rights in the Middle East (and has a strong gay community itself, along with attracting many from the EU). Do you mean that UAE is the most progressive of the Muslim or Arab Middle Eastern countries or is the UAE more progressive on that issue than Israel?

  18. I was also wandering as Anna about traveling there alone. My husband is not interested and would prefer to spend his vacation days somewhere else. I would like to visit for few days but was nervous about the safety. The are so many bad stories out there about women being drugged and raped and then go to jail for it. The woman goes to jail that is, not the man who raped her. Many documentaries on youtube also.

  19. I posted the same question in your other thread and I thought I’d posted it again here to get someone else’s opinion. I’m planning a trip to middle east including Jordan, Israel and UAE. Would I be able to enter UAE if my passport has a stamp showing recent visit to Israel? I plan to enter Israel by land from Jordan so it seems the stamp is not avoidable. In some other occasions I read they can stamp the visa on a separate piece of paper so there’s no trace of visiting Israel on the passport.

  20. “Yes. Relatively speaking and in practical terms, is the UAE the most progressive in the Middle East?”

    Uhhh what about the ONLY country in the Middle East in which one is allowed to be openly gay, hold hands, etc?

    @JW, the UAE doesn’t care about Iraeali stamps and neither would Jordan for that matter. I’ve entered the UAE at least 5-6 times with an Israeli stamp happening to be the first one in my passport so each immigration officer saw it..

  21. I am headed to Dubai in May on a short layover and I am very much looking forward to it. 😀

  22. @gina

    Take a look at the live airline traffic on
    Most airlines other than those flying to/from Iraq and Syria avoid flying over those conflict zones.

  23. As a gay guy of 100% Northern European descent who travels frequently to Jeddah for work. Yes, Saudi Arabia has barbaric anti-gay laws but that has not stopped a gay life from flourishing, in its own way, in Jeddah and, to a lesser extent, in Riyadh. Is it like gay life in Berlin? No, of course not. But it’s there and it’s engaging. Not once in all these years have I been made to feel unsafe or unwelcome, even as an openly gay man. The same goes for my Jewish colleague.

    Fantastic post, Ben. Well done and well said.

  24. The comments above are Pinkwashing. Israel is so gay friendly and respectful of human rights…. Except for all those Palestinians, including the gay ones.

    The historical ignorance of this blog past shows just how I’ll researched you are.

    If you think the UAE has no history because ‘it was just a fishing village’ then you ignore the entire Arab and Islamic history of the region. Do some research on the Golden Age of Islam kiddo.

  25. Plaestinians, gay, straight or otherwise are afforded the same protections under the law. I’ve been there and lived there to see it first hand, have you?

  26. @ MD Palestinians, gay, straight or otherwise are afforded the same protections under the law. I’ve been there and lived there to see it first hand, have you? You really need to open your eyes and educate yourself, visit Evita off Rothschild Blvd and see for yourself.

  27. @MD

    I think you’re misrepresenting previous comments.

    “Israel is so gay friendly”

    No one has said that Israel is perfect in this regard- it is just better than the other places in comparison. And many gay Palestinians gather in Tel Aviv as a place where they be more open.

    “If you think the UAE has no history because ‘it was just a fishing village’ then you ignore the entire Arab and Islamic history of the region.”

    This is a non sequitir. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were fishing villages. If you’re looking to see the history and culture of the Islamic Golden Age, you’re better off looking in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, The Hejaz, Muscat, parts of Spain, etc.

  28. i just got back from the UAE earlier this week after taking advantage of Etihad’s generosity. I had an absolutely fabulous time there, and while it may not have the historical sites that some other countries have, it’s clean, modern, safe, and fascinating. I actually preferred Abu Dhabi (including the fabulous St. Regis on Sadiyaat Island) to the hustle and bustle of Dubai, but both were great destinations. Yes, the laws are extreme by US standards, if you follow them, it’s not an issue. I would return in a heartbeat.

  29. As a 50-something I do take a fair number of prescriptions and over-the-counter meds. I’ve heard this can commonly be a problem in the UAE involving extensive paperwork beforehand vice getting into serious trouble for over-the-counter items we consider quite benign (cough drops?) What’s the straight scoop on this issue?

  30. as i was reading this, i also thought, “isn’t israel way more progressive?” i’m glad other people brought this up, too. also, which middle east airline refuses to admit that israel exists and is this still the case? i’d be interested to know..

  31. “I avoid Dubai because of slavery.”

    Do you avoid places like Singapore and Honk Kong as well for those reasons?

    Pinkwashing is a problem in Israel.

    “Not once in all these years have I been made to feel unsafe or unwelcome, even as an openly gay man.”

    I’d still be careful if I was a gay man in Saudi. Some guys in Jeddah who live in a compound recently ran in trouble with the law for certain “activities” off their compound, so you really need to be careful.

  32. I’ve just moved to Dubai. What’s appealing is the positivity and ambition of the place.

    Back in the UK it’s all doom and gloom, the news is full of depression by choice. I loved the London Olympics because for once the media were looking on the bright side of life and everyone was really happy and proud to be British – that is before returning to the usual misery of Paedophile/ISIS/recession stories that fill every paper, every day.

    The UAE isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s exciting to be part of it.

  33. @LESKER
    I take issue with your comment about Vegas. We have a hell of a lot of historical figures. It’s just difficult to find them buried in the desert.

  34. “Do you avoid places like Singapore and Honk Kong as well for those reasons?”

    Never heard of Honk Kong.

  35. I have an interesting perspective into this question, because my father works in the UAE (Abu Dhabi), in addition to having been there myself.

    I think around the world, one of the biggest causes for crime is drugs. In the UAE, if you are caught using drugs, they will help you get off of them. BUT…. if you are caught dealing, then they will chop off your head. Consequently, VERY low crime.

  36. Ben, still curious why as a young gay male, you have never visited (or written about visiting) Israel and Tel Aviv in particular

    Doubt there is a city that you’d enjoy more….

  37. Heck yeah. I’m an Emirati from Abu Dhabi, and I surely feel great. I’m currently miss home, as I’m staying in the US now for a while. If you got any thoughts or question that you’d like to share, feel free to hit me up

  38. I plan to start paying on a trip to Dubai for my two teenagers 15 & 18 and I for June 2016 in a few weeks and am almost terrified after reading some sites about Western women being sexually assaulted and locked up. Also I’m Causician female and my children are of mixed race(African Amerian/Causcian)…will this be a problem and do you think we will be safe?

  39. @ Coetta — I wouldn’t worry at all. I took my mother earlier this year, and honestly feel safer as a solo female in the UAE than I do in California.

  40. The UAE and the entire Middle East is prohibited in my own opinions. I always wanted to go to Dubai but man. DXB is a stupid idea bro. Because of the (insert evil voice) Sharia Law and the terrorists so you shouldn’t go there. And for the terrorists. If you sought suspicious items. Stay away. And BTW I always want to fly on Emirates (EK) but DXB Airport is on the list of prohibits.

  41. @Willowx

    Not arguing here, but Dubai is not on sharia law like how you see on movies or Fox News, Dubai is a modern city, don’t worry you have night clubs there and alcohol… Also terrorists? You realize you’re using this term on Arabs means you’re racist, and there no “terrorists” from UAE.

  42. @Khalid I think this is what I am talking about. Click on the “WillowX” to see above.

    And for the terrorism. That was my old mom who thought it.

  43. I visited Dubai a few months ago. Had to go there to do a few minutes of work. Actually went to referee a wheat sample for a shipping agency in Dubai. Took me 20 minutes to grade the sample and stayed for 6 days. The agency had one of their agents take me sightseeing. Dubai was absolutely beautiful. I would have liked to have stayed much longer. I felt so much safer there than I do at home. Looking forward to returning and the sooner the better.

  44. Does anybody have any insight regarding dress code in Dubai? I’ve read on several publications that you can jailed for being too revealing. Revealing seems pretty subjective especially in Dubai’s hot weather.

  45. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Lucky. Can I please encourage you to use people-first language in the future? Saying “gay people” vs “gays” makes a huge difference. I wouldn’t imagine you would say “blacks” or “disableds”. Just some input. 🙂

  46. Thanks Ben, I was a little bit concerned about travelling to Abu Dhabi with my girlfriend this summer but thanks to this post I changed my mind. Personally I believe that currently UAE seems like the safest arab country.

  47. One girl invited me to her apartment and there were 3 black girls and forced me to give 800dhs by locking the door and getting naked they said they will scream and they will say I was trying to rape them. I didnt accept and told them to call the police. There was another man with a knife in the bathroom too. their address is Park Inn by Radisson Hotel Apartment, Al Barsha1, Opposite Ibis Hotel next to mall of the Emirates, Dubai. Room 514 her phone is+971523518364. I didn’t know about 999. I opened an online case with dubai police department and they recommended to call 999 and closed the ticket. As tourist I thought dubai is a safe place but looks like it is not anymore.

  48. Hey, I’m sorry but I can’t believe you for many reasons. First of all, a hotel address isn’t usual, so there’s something wrong about that, yes, that’s a prostitute number… I know that number very well, she’s a blonde white lady as I remember… She’s a prostitute. So your whole story doesn’t make sense.

  49. You talked a lot of misconception but there is one that you have made.
    You disconnected Israel from the Middle East. I dont know if you did this on purpose, excluding Israel from the middle east as its a full blown european country, or just forgot about it but Israel is the only Democracy in the Middle East, while UAE is not
    And non of those questions are relevant to Israel same as no one would ask “is it ok to share a bed in USA” because its obvious that you can do whatever you want. No one is going to jail you for being who you are.
    Regarding gay rights, Tel Aviv is one of the top cities for gays IN THE WORLD

    I personally planning on visiting UAE as I heard a lot of good things about it, and in no way, shape or form I am trying to make this comment about Israel
    I was just curious to see as to why you excluded it when comparing UAE to other countries in the Middle East


  50. I am so much interested to travel in Dubai to look for ajob is it efficient for me to go ahead?

  51. “Us tourists are left to create the culture in UAE” “The UAE is absolutely the most progressive country in the Middle East.” I cringed reading some of the things you wrote. I genuinely believe you have a very limited view of the Middle East and it seems like you haven’t traveled outside the GCC very much. Please read a bit about the world before writing an article where you make bold statements about a country and an entire region.

  52. I would like to know if Dubai is safe for travel for I’m a woman with Deep Color to my skin African/American ? But anyway I’m planning a trip with 3 others for April 2017,will we be Safe, I’ve heard they are very hard on African women is this True ?

  53. I haven’t been to Dubai, but have read appalling articles about trafficked workers from poor countries and the conditions in which they live. Human rights activists have shed light on people who have come to work, had their passports immediately stolen (until they can repay the “debt” of getting them there) and are there as slaves for 10 years or more, living in barracks with hundreds of other workers and no air conditioning. I couldn’t visit a country that was being built through human exploitation in the modern day.

  54. The laws in UAE may not be applied 100% but it is illegal to have sex outside of marriage, homosexuality illegal, kissing and hugging in public can lead to arrest, tourists cannot drink alcohol legally as a personal licence is required which is available only to non-Muslim residents, oh and e-cigarettes banned. They want tourists’ money but don’t want to change their laws.

  55. Thank you for such a great and honest review. I am thinking of taking my family of 5 (3 boys under the age of 12) after Christmaa this year.

  56. While the deplorable things that you have written about Dubai is true, it is still to consider it a safe place for women travelers. Despite the law being stringent, a couple of untoward incidences do happen. Then it is the same in most parts of the world. You just cannot imagine what’s going in a person’s mind and how he or she will react with tourists. But people here do respect women. They fear their god and have deep reverence for thier culture. In the end, it’s a personal choice whether to travel to Dubai or not.

  57. According to my experience, UAE is the safest place I have ever visited. It was my solo travel trip to Dubai. While travelling, I never felt unsafe . They have very strict rules and regulations specially for the women safety.

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