lady on a beach in Abu Dhabi looking back at the abu dhabi skyline Abu Dhabi Travel Planner

Rules for Tourists in Abu Dhabi: Do’s And Don’ts To Keep You Out of Trouble  

Remaining respectful and keeping on the right side of the law in the UAE

When you’re travelling in an unfamiliar country the last thing that you want to do is fall foul of the law, so it’s important to know what is and isn’t allowed. The UAE is a Muslim country and has some very strict rules about what you can and can’t do.

As a visitor to this country, try to be respectful of cultural sensitivities, and please understand when it is no longer about etiquette, but the law. Every year, a small number of visitors will land themselves in hot water by ignoring or misunderstanding the rules.

Whilst we can’t cover everything here, we can highlight some of the things that visitors to Abu Dhabi do occasionally get wrong. Whilst it’s important to note that rules do vary from emirate to emirate, here’s our list of Abu Dhabi dos and don’ts.

Public Displays of Affection 

Can you show affection in public? YES, but keep it PG.

Public displays of affection between adults of the opposite sex are at the very least frowned up. Holding hands is generally seen as OK but anything more than a friendly hug or peck on the cheek can get you in serious trouble. 

Do

  • Greet a friend with a hug or quick peck on the cheek.
  • Holding hands is not generally seen as an issue. You will see people of the same and opposite sexes holding hands; this is especially common among the South Asian diaspora and is a sign of friendship.
  • Feel free to stay in a hotel room as an unmarried couple. Since October 2021, many rules have been relaxed, and while it used to be a criminal offence, you can now stay in the same room or co-habit without legal issues.

Don’t

  • Offer to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex if you don’t know them. In order not to cause offence, wait for them to take the initiative.
  • Show any physical affection towards a partner with sexual undertones. This could be seen as indecent behaviour and is against the law.

Dressing Modestly 

Do women have to cover themselves in Abu Dhabi? Yes & No

Women should dress modestly. There isn’t a law against wearing what you want, but it is socially unacceptable for women to wear revealing clothing.

Many malls have dress policies, and whilst it may seem that the UAE is becoming more lenient, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. 

Do

  • Endeavour to cover your shoulders, cleavage, midriff and thighs in public.
  • Wear appropriate clothes for the situation. Bikinis and bathing suits should only be worn by the pool or at the beach. Cover yourself if you go to a beachside cafe or similar.
  • Keep your arms and legs covered when going to government buildings and places of worship – this goes for men and women.
  • If visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, women, in particular, should be aware of the very strict dress code, which includes covering from wrist to ankle in loose-fitting, non-translucent clothing and covering their heads and hair with a headscarf.
  • Carry a shawl or cover-up as the air-conditioning in malls and restaurants can feel arctic compared to outdoor temperatures.
lady with long dress and head covering at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Don’t

  • Venture to the mall or restaurant in your swimming costume (men and women); please change into something more appropriate.
  • Wear t-shirts with profane language, offensive or political messages.
  • Get upset or aggressive if you are asked to cover up.
  • Cross-dress. This is forbidden and you can get arrested.
  • Bathe or sunbathe topless (ladies) or in the nude. This is strictly not allowed.

You can get some hints and tips on what to wear in Abu Dhabi here

Drinking Alcohol

Can I drink alcohol in Abu Dhabi? Yes

Non-Muslims over the age of 21 can drink responsibly in designated venues. Technically, the law states that the legal drinking age is 18, but anyone under the age of 21 is not allowed to purchase alcohol for themselves. The legal drinking age differs in other emirates, and alcohol is completely banned in the Emirate of Sharjah.

Do

  • Enjoy alcohol at licensed venues such as hotels and restaurants, or in private.
  • Indulge in a drink onboard your Etihad flight to the UAE
  • Feel free to bring in a maximum of four litres of alcohol from Duty Free for personal consumption.
  • Enjoy a locally brewed beer at the UAE’s first Craft Brewery.

Don’t

  • Drink alcohol in public places or engage in drunk and disorderly behaviour in public (including in a taxi), it can land you in jail.
  • Drink and Drive! There is no tolerance for driving under the influence in Abu Dhabi. The blood alcohol limit is zero. It’s better to book a taxi, Uber or Careem for those nights out.

We discuss the drinking laws in Abu Dhabi in much more detail here

Public and Online Code of Conduct

Can I make statements in public or online that are critical of Abu Dhabi and its culture, or post on social media without consent? No

Do

  • Ask permission before photographing people, especially women and children. It is not just good etiquette but also a requirement. 
  • Under Cybercrime Laws, photographing someone and posting online without their consent is against the law and could carry a hefty fine or even jail time. Read more here.
  • Refrain from filming or photographing government buildings, offices or entities, bridges or strategic assets, or people in public roles like the Police. This is strictly prohibited.

Don’t

  • Share fake news online, even on WhatsApp. You may get fined.
  • Criticise Abu Dhabi, its rulers, or Islam in public or online. The laws are strict in this regard, and you could end up in jail.
  • Use obscene or insulting language in person or online, as it is taken very seriously. This is rule that may come as a surprise to some visitors, and it can often escalate situations unnecessarily. Please remain calm and polite in any interaction.
  • Try to import a drone without the correct documentation. Drones are prohibited in many places in the UAE and you do need a special permit to use one anywhere. You can find out more about drone permits here.

The reality is that not following any of the above recommendations is likely to receive a few raised eyebrows at most. This is partly why visitors often find the different guidelines rather opaque, as they see them not being enforced on many occasions. 

While you may see people getting away with not following the guidelines, please know that if someone takes offence to your actions and decide to make an official complaint, you may be held accountable in accordance with the law.

If you find that someone challenges your actions, please avoid being argumentative;, instead, respond in a respectful and polite manner. That way, you are much more likely to be let off with a warning, where aggression and rude behaviour could escalate an already delicate situation.

Ramadan in Abu Dhabi

Can I eat during the day during Ramadan – YES

Ramadan is a lovely month in Abu Dhabi – a month of respect, reflection, tolerance, and charity. Tourists are sometimes told to avoid Abu Dhabi during this time, but it can be a great opportunity to get a little closer under its skin.

Food consumption used to be allowed only in screened-off areas, but recently, screens were removed, and you are now allowed to eat and drink in restaurants. 

You should still be extra mindful of the host culture during Ramadan. Please note that fasting does not apply to the sick, elderly, pregnant women, menstruating women or children. They should feel free to eat and drink as needed but should show consideration.

Do:

  • Be respectful, and if you need a sip of water in public, please be discreet.
  • Try an Iftar meal (when fast is broken at sundown), or for the night owls, try Suhoor (meal before sunrise).
  • Be prepared that many food outlets operate at different opening hours and serving times during Ramadan. Many shops and attractions may also have different opening hours during this month, so it is best to check the timings in advance.
  • Try to make even more of an effort to dress modestly during this month.
  • Venture to the mall for late-night shopping. During Ramadan, many shops are open much later to accommodate activities during the non-fasting hours.
  • Try and visit the Grand Mosque during the Holy Month – hours are modified for prayer times, but the mosque no longer closes during the Holy Month, making it the perfect place to gain a greater understanding of the local culture
  • Be mindful of the hour leading up to iftar – the breaking of the fast – as this is when tempers might fray. Driving can be especially difficult during this time.
a ramadan lantern against the Abu Dhabi city skyline

Don’t

  • Eat or drink in public spaces outside of restaurants, i.e., walking on the street, etc., unless you really must or are exempt from fasting. Even then, do so with discretion.
  • Offer food or drink to people who are fasting.
  • Be surprised if some restaurants stop serving alcohol or playing music in order to observe Ramadan.
  • Pass public judgement on the rights and wrongs of fasting.

We have a detailed guide here to etiquette to observe during the Holy Month of Ramadan in Abu Dhabi

Pork in Abu Dhabi

Can you eat pork in Abu Dhabi – YES

Whilst Muslims do not eat pork, pork is available for expats and tourists in some restaurants and selected supermarkets.

Don’t expect pork in restaurants or most food outlets. A few eateries (such as Hickory’s at Yas Links or ) will have obtained a license to serve pork, but these are few and far between.

Do

  • Head to one of the larger international supermarkets (such as Waitrose or Spinneys), where you can purchase pork products from the non-halal section (usually segregated from the main shop). The door may be marked “for Non-Muslims only”.
  • Expect to pay more for pork products than you would in your home country.

Don’t

  • Expect pork to be readily available in restaurants or most food outlets. A few eateries will have obtained a license to serve pork, but these are few and far between. You should expect pork to be served on a different plate and with different utensils where it is available.

Drugs in Abu Dhabi

Are you allowed to use recreational drugs in Abu Dhabi? – NO

Do

  • Check the list of restricted medications here before travelling to Abu Dhabi. You may need permission for some prescription medications if they are illegal in the UAE – Apply here.
  • Check that you are not bringing products with banned ingredients such as CBD oil or poppy seeds (even if it is in skincare products or on top of a bun!).

Don’t

  • Import or use any narcotics or recreational drugs – there is zero tolerance, and punishments are severe.

Getting from A to Z in Abu Dhabi

Are women allowed to drive? Yes

Anyone with a valid driving licence is technically allowed to drive in Abu Dhabi. If you don’t fancy driving yourself, however, there is a decent public bus system and a wide network of taxis.

Do

  • Make sure to get an international driving permit in order to rent a car in Abu Dhabi. See more here.
  • Download the Abu Dhabi Taxi App. It makes life much easier, especially when you don’t know where you are! Uber and the local equivalent Careem are also available and handy to have ready on your phone.

Don’t

  • Using your mobile phone while driving is illegal, and you can get fined.
  • Don’t break the speed limit. You will see people driving faster than the limit (and no doubt some drivers flashing their lights at you), but they will be fined. In Dubai, there is a 20km/h buffer, but this does not apply in Abu Dhabi – you mustn’t drive above the posted limit.
  • Be careful where you park and always pay the parking fee (if there is one). If you don’t, you will be fined.
  • Make rude hand gestures, as this can land you in real trouble. It isn’t just offensive but also against the law. Explained in more detail here.

You can learn more about transportation in Abu Dhabi here

What Happens When You Don’t ‘Follow The Rules’ in Abu Dhabi

The reality is that not following any of the above recommendations is likely to receive a few raised eyebrows at most. This is partly why visitors often find the different guidelines rather opaque, as they see them not being enforced on many occasions. 

While you may see people getting away with not following the guidelines, please know that if someone takes offence to your actions and decides to make an official complaint, you may be held accountable in accordance with the law.

If someone challenges your actions, please avoid being argumentative; instead, respond respectfully and politely. That way, you are much more likely to be let off with a warning, while aggression and rude behaviour could escalate an already delicate situation.

By showing respect and following the above Do’s and Don’ts, you should be able to concentrate on enjoying your time in Abu Dhabi.


Before you go… Important things to consider when planning a trip to Abu Dhabi

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