Decency in Dubai

Just how well do you know the law in Dubai. Time Out investigates

Area Guides

It seems Dubai’s authorities are cracking down on public indecency in the city. You probably know or have heard of someone who has recently been ‘red carded’, where the courtesy policy in malls is enforced by handing out warning notices to women wearing outfits that are deemed inappropriate (usually for exposing the knees and/or shoulders). Undercover police patrols of beaches resulted in 6,000 cases logged in the first 10 months of 2009, with offences including couples kissing and touching cited in police records. More recently, there’s the British couple appealing a jail sentence for being overtly affectionate in a JBR restaurant. We’ve also heard of women being questioned by policemen in the street for wearing shorts deemed too short.

Public decency laws have always existed in Dubai. But perhaps it’s because they are being so regularly flouted by the ever-increasing expat presence here that the authorities feel a need to remind us of what is and what is not acceptable. That said, the official ‘Rules of Conduct in Dubai’, prepared by the Executive Council, can be interpreted in various ways depending on the reader. Repeated calls by Time Out to the Criminal Investigations Department and Dubai’s Royal Courts turned up no definite answers. But the fact remains that this is a Muslim country and if someone takes offence to behaviour that conflicts with these laws and reports you, then you have committed a crime, whether or not plenty of other people do it and get away with it.

We expect the best way to avoid trouble is to interpret these rules as conservatively as possible. Time Out has emboldened certain points below.

Rules of Conduct in Dubai, prepared by the Executive Council

Social ethics

1.2. Decency
In all public places such as streets, shopping malls and restaurants, shorts and skirts shall be of appropriate length. Moreover, clothing shall not indecently expose parts of the body, be transparent, or display obscene or offensive pictures and slogans.

1.3. Beaches
Beachgoers – men and women – shall wear conservative swimwear that is acceptable to Dubai’s culture. Swimwear shall not be worn outside the beach, as decent dress is the rule in the rest of the city. Nudity is strictly forbidden in every part of the city and is liable to be punished by imprisonment or deportation.

1.4. Public displays of affection
Displays of affection among couples – whether married or not – in public places does not fit the local customs and culture. Holding hands for a married couple is tolerated but kissing and petting are considered an offence to public decency.

Public displays of affection, as well as sexual harassment or randomly addressing women in public places, are liable to be punished by imprisonment or deportation.

Offence: Public display of affection
Penalty: Warning or fine (in case of severe breach can lead to jail and/or deportation)

Over to you

Dubai residents weigh in on the debate
Scotty Booth, US, 28
‘I find the laws a little confusing since they’re not always enforced. Before I moved here I read something about keeping knees and shoulders covered. But then you go to Mall of the Emirates and women are walking around in tank tops. It’s completely inappropriate, because it’s implicitly obvious what the law is – to dress respectfully. But perhaps the guidelines should be more specific if Westerners are going to adhere to them.’

Mhairi Campbell, NZ, 29
‘I’ve always worn short shorts in Dubai, and about six months ago I got red carded by a security guard in a mall who told me that I should dress more appropriately. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I was offended. If it was made clearer that this is the law and you can be arrested for it, then I would abide by it. But it needs to be made known – you should get a list of how it works and what the law is when you apply for
your visa.’

John Schwartz, US, 46
‘Dubai seems really relaxed and liberal in how it treats its expats and, although I do know that you’re supposed to dress modestly and that women shouldn’t expose their knees or shoulders, I don’t see anyone observing that! If it really is a punishable offence to kiss in public then there should be communication on a widespread basis, such as corporate seminars on conduct in the workplace.’

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