Dubai, one of seven United Arab Emirates, has a long history of taking pride in the number of foreigners that it attracts each year. Many of Dubai’s official travel websites even claim that it is the fourth most visited destination in the world. Though there is some variation depending on how this statistic is calculated, the fact remains that Dubai hosts a great number of foreigners. Dubai has a population of 2.5 million, and last year it had almost 15 million foreign visitors who stayed at least one night.
However, this booming tourist industry also comes with many stories of disgruntled Western travelers who were imprisoned during their stay in Dubai for acts that would hardly warrant a response in most Western countries. For most of us in the Western world, many of the punishments for these offenses may seem excessive, but by voluntarily entering a foreign province, these travelers inherently agree to abide by the laws that the governing entity chooses to impose. In this sense, the burden lies with the traveler to educate themselves and abide by these laws, regardless of their perception of the laws’ validity. Though Dubai certainly does not have to justify its laws to tourists, it does have the duty to uniformly enforce these laws to the best of the government’s ability. However, many reports indicate that these laws are primarily wielded against foreign visitors and not local residents, which violates the rational and equalizing spirit of the law and unjustly targets foreigners.
Dubai law is based on a strict interpretation of Shariah law, and as a result, people face a greater number of restrictions than they would in most Western countries. Some of these laws prohibit certain forms of expression or conduct. For example, a British man is currently facing six months in jail for giving the middle finger to someone on the street, another British man has been jailed for posting a link on Facebook to a charitable website without permission of the appropriate government agency and an American man was jailed after posting about a disagreement with his employer regarding sick leave. People can also be jailed for drinking without a license.
While many of these restrictions seem strange to foreign visitors, because they are voluntarily entering Dubai, they have to submit themselves to Dubai law, just as we expect foreign visitors to the United States to abide by our laws and face the penalties we impose if they choose not to. Some Western countries, including the U.K., include information about Dubai’s laws on government websites regarding foreign travel. On the U.K. travel site, this information includes an overview of what is illegal in Dubai, like drinking without a permit, using obscene language or having extramarital sex, and the potential punishments for these actions. This advisory is something I hope many Western governments adopt, not only because it helps to inform travelers, but also because it acknowledges that it is not the foreign entity’s responsibility to ensure visitors understand their laws. Rather, it is the visitors’ duty to educate themselves. Sites like these can help visitors start that process.
The government of Dubai, however, does have a duty to all its residents and visitors to uniformly enforce its laws to the best of its ability. The spirit of the law across all governments should be to establish a set of rules that applies equally to all people. Many foreign visitors to Dubai have reported that most of these laws are not routinely enforced, but rather subject to law enforcement’s changing attitudes towards the acting individual. While it is difficult to gather reliable data to this effect due to the wide range of estimates for crimes in Dubai, there are some reports that seem to support this story. For example, sharing a room with a member of the opposite sex who is not your spouse is illegal; however, most hotels do not ask for proof of marriage when checking in couples. Yet multiple visiting couples have reported being stopped by law enforcement and arrested when they could not produce their marriage license before entering their hotel. Any law that is implemented should also be enforced uniformly across all groups of people.
Despite the fact that media outlets regularly feature stories in which indignant western visitors report being arrested in Dubai for acts like cursing at others or kissing in public, the number of visitors to Dubai has steadily risen from 8.4 million in 2010 to 14.9 million last year, according to the Telegraph. If Westerners continue to insist on visiting Dubai, they must educate themselves on Dubai laws and act accordingly or accept the consequences for breaking those laws.