Ever since the Arab Spring in 2011, people have remained cautious with regards to safety in the Middle East. Admittedly, some countries like Yemen and Syria continue to issue cautionary warnings to travellers. However, much of the region remains peaceful now, and the United Arab Emirates is certainly one of them. The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum of Dubai is relatively modern-thinking, and as a result, the region is quite Westernised and cosmopolitan. So, how safe is it to travel to the UAE? And how safe is Dubai?
Crime in Dubai
With vigilant Dubai Police and strict enforcement of the law, crime rates are generally low. Of course, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't stay vigilant. Keep an eye on your belongings at all times and don't leave them unattended. There are the occasional reports of opportunistic burglary, pickpocketing and theft. Perhaps the most common crime in Dubai is credit card fraud and scams. It isn't uncommon for tourists to be approached by injured beggars or women with sick children who ask for money. There are plenty of cheap and fake goods that are sold at high prices to tourists in Dubai's local markets too, so check the quality of goods before purchases.
In case of trouble, feel free to reach out. The police pay attention to any disregard for the law, and most operators of emergency numbers speak different languages. Dubai has its fair share of expatriates that outnumber Arabic-speaking locals. So, English is widely spoken in Dubai. Law enforcement and hotel staff, in particular, are fluent in both Arabic and English.
Transport Safety in Dubai
Public transport is easily available, and you can travel quite freely in Dubai. It's safe and monitored. The taxis have a different coloured roof to differentiate between different cab companies. Many of these drivers are immigrants, and they speak many languages so you should be able to communicate easily. In some cases, there are unlicensed taxis with no meters which charge higher fees than normal. It is preferable to only use licensed taxis from registered cab companies during your trip.
Conducting yourself properly in public is important in Dubai, especially with regard to members of the opposite sex. In public transport, it's recommended that women seek the front section of the bus that is specifically for them. Sometimes, sitting beside a member of the opposite sex can be misinterpreted as flirtatious behaviour. Moreover, don't put your feet on seats as it is considered disrespectful.
Road transport is the primary mode of transport in Dubai, but it also has one of the highest rates of accidents. Drivers flagrantly ignore speed limits and drive rashly. If you're a woman driving the car, they sometimes take you for granted and speed past without warning or indication. In such scenarios, it's best not to engage. While entering and leaving Dubai, there are long stretches of road with no help in sight. It is a good idea to travel with spare tires and other supplies in case of emergencies.
Safety measures extend to desert safaris around Dubai as well. It's best to avoid embarking on such safaris without an experienced guide. Conduct some research online or through word-of-mouth before using the services of any tour operators because some companies value profits over security. Desert safaris can be dangerous without proper measures like speed limits, seatbelts, and protective gear in the case of quad biking. In recent years, there have been discussions about children on these rides as many tour operators do not have proper safety equipment in their sizes.
Women and Couples
Dubai is a cosmopolitan city, and for the most part, women are quite safe. There are separate counters and queues for women in most parts of the city. You can walk on the streets without worrying about any potential threats. Sexual harassment is admittedly still a problem, but there are very few cases when leering and catcalls have turned into any threatening actions against women. Dubai Police are strict about sexual harassment, so threats about calling the police usually work against these harassers.
Clothing remains somewhat debatable. You can wear shorts, crop tops and sleeveless tops in most parts of Dubai, especially in popular tourist areas. Most women don't wear veils or headdresses. However, as an Islamic country, the local people are modest about their clothing. It is said that you will be more warmly received if you remain understanding of their culture and wear less revealing clothing to avoid being interpreted as disrespectful. Perhaps avoid clothes that expose too much of the legs and torso, and you should be alright.
Dubai has a happening nightlife with plenty of pubs and nightclubs in major hotel chains. These areas are generally safe for women to enjoy some drinks and party through the night. It is common to be approached by men. But keep in mind that in some cases, a single woman at these places might be misconstrued as an escort by the men.
There are very rare cases of violence against women in Dubai, but this is not to say that it doesn't happen. In instances of sexual assault, the Dubai Police are very prompt in taking action. But, you should probably keep in mind that pre-marital sexual activities of any kind are frowned upon in the UAE and as a result, some warn that women could get some kind of punishment as well.
Although Dubai is welcoming on tourists, public displays of affection remain problematic. While holding hands and pecks on the cheek are socially acceptable, anything more is considered impolite. It attracts unnecessary attention in public. Unmarried couples are generally not allowed to live together or rent hotel rooms together in the UAE. There have been some cases of hotels asking for marriage certificates of couples, but most high-end hotels normally turn a blind eye to this.
Alcohol and Drugs
Although the UAE is an Islamic country, alcohol is available in most major cities and Dubai is no exception. Liquor licenses are available to non-locals, but if you are in the country on a tourist visa, it is not required. In fact, these licenses are rarely checked. Keep in mind that these licenses are not common across the Emirates, so a license from Abu Dhabi won't work in Dubai.
Consumption of alcohol is permitted in licensed venues (most often bars and nightclubs in major hotel chains) and leniency is shown to non-Muslims in Dubai. However, public intoxication is not allowed. When leaving the hotel, ensure that you take your cab back to your accommodation instead of walking on the street. Drunken behaviour of any kind in public is not permitted. This extends to drinking and driving as well, as the police are very strict about it.
These rules are particularly enforced during the month of Ramadan. Alcohol is not served during fasting hours, and the loudest music and live performances do not take place. Holy days are dry days in Dubai.
The UAE is notorious for their strict policy regarding drugs and controlled substances including medicines. Some common drugs containing codeine or diazepam (such as a Valium) are banned without a doctor's prescription. While travelling around Dubai, it is a good idea to keep your doctor's prescriptions with you if you are carrying your medicines. Sometimes, these prescriptions are not enough documentation and tourists have been fined or refused entry into the UAE. It is most recommended to avoid carrying medicines into the UAE unless absolutely necessary.
Countries in the Middle East are notorious for their beliefs against homosexuality, and this extends to the UAE as well. It is considered illegal in Dubai, and same-sex marriages are not recognised. According to Article 177 of the Penal Code of Dubai, consensual sodomy can lead to up to 10 years imprisonment. It is commonly depicted in local media as associated with disease and sex crimes. However, there is a discreet, underground LGBTQ community in the country. Unless individuals display outright homosexual behaviour or announce it, there shouldn't be much problem in Dubai.
As long as you keep these basic tips in mind, travelling to Dubai should be hassle-free. It is mostly a modern city full of residents from around the world who outnumber the local Arabs. The city is fun, lively and full of energy. Stay vigilant and your trip will be memorable for all the right reasons.