Travelling to the Middle East? You need to know this!
It happens far too often that travellers to the Arabian Peninsula have run-ins with the law. Just recently a man was deported for having sex out-of-wedlock and another for drinking at the beach. While most countries on the Arabian Peninsula are very hospitable and tolerant they do have different norms and values based on their faith, the Islam. Difference and distinction are accepted as long as you respectfully comply with the law and regulations. But if you don’t, the enforcement order doesn’t discriminate. The law applies to all residents, tourists and travellers, even if you are on transit. Some laws are obvious, such as drugs laws. But did you know that being pregnant can bring you into trouble?
Key laws and regulations
Below are some of the most stringent laws on the Arabian Peninsula. Are you planning a trip to the Middle East? Then you need to know this! Check the country’s embassy for more specific information.
Like anywhere else in the world travelling with weapons and ammunition is prohibited. For certain recording equipment such as tape recorders, strong photo lenses, satellite phones and walky-talkies, you need to have a license. Furthermore, it isn’t allowed to bring pork products over the border and you have to leave your electronic cigarette at home.
In addition, nude photos, sexually tinted material or toys are prohibited. This also includes the images of your children running around in their bare buttocks at the first beautiful day of the year. Delete that photo folder from your phone in time!
For questions about importing goods contact the travel agency or customs at the airport of arrival.
Drugs, herbs and medicines
There is zero tolerance for narcotics in any form or amount. A used empty bag is enough to put you behind bars for a lifetime. Certain herbs and seeds, even the tiny black poppy-seeds that are often put on bread, are also covered by the legislation. In addition, medicines such as mood inhibitors, sleeping pills or heavy painkillers are prohibited. Make sure the substances you bring are legal and ask your doctor for an official medical report when importing medicines.
Although drinking alcohol is officially not allowed, non-Muslims and expats with a liquor licence may use alcohol in designated places, such as in hotels. Keep in mind that public drinking is punishable. And if you still need to drive, then even one slug is too much!
The minimum age for consuming alcohol differs by country and even within the separate emirates or provinces (18 or 21 years). Alcohol isn’t permitted at all in Saudi Arabia and in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
What (not) to wear
Officially, men and women should cover themselves in public areas and when visiting governmental buildings. Tight clothes aren’t desired and underwear shouldn’t be visible. Bare shoulders and shorts are tolerated in hotels, bars and touristy places of the bigger cities. Swimwear can only be worn at swimming pools and beaches. Most malls have dress codes. However, you might see expats or tourists in shorts or a tank top. But be careful wearing it yourself. A friend of mine was sent away because his ripped jeans didn’t cover his knees.
To access religious buildings men and women need to cover their whole body up to their hands and feet with loose, none-transparent clothing. In addition, women should wear a long skirt or dress and cover their hair.
Only in Saudi Arabia and Iran women need to wear a headscarf. But if you as a woman are travelling on your own or in remote areas make sure you dress conservatively. You might even want to consider bringing a headscarf along.
Cursing, shaming, offensive gestures, brutally contradicting or acting in any other negative or inappropriate way is forbidden at all times. Mind your words when talking over the phone, be careful when posting a photo or video on social media and check your text messages before sending them. Always be polite and in control to the police or other authorities. Most are fair, extremely friendly and willing to seek for solutions.
Relationship and Pregnancy
The law about relationships is very clear. Only officially married heterosexual couples may live together, share a hotel room or have sex. Any other form of relationship, even when in civil partnership, are illegal. Extramarital relationships are severely punished.
Even for married couples the slightest form of affection shown in a public area can lead to imprisonment and deportation.
Many people travelling to the Gulf don’t know or underestimate the risks of being pregnant while not officially married. If something goes wrong you might end up in prison. Control is strict. For a check-up, an emergency, and when applying for a birth certificate you need to hand in a copy of your marriage certificate. In some cases, the baby’s birth date will be compared to your wedding date.
Photography, Video, and Internet
It is not allowed to take pictures of government buildings, royal palaces, military sites, or other authorities like the police. Do you want a photo of that super cool police car? Ask for permission, the answer will often be positive. The police horses on the beach in Muscat can’t be photographed.
Most Arabic countries have strict rules regarding the privacy and security of individuals, businesses, governmental bodies etc. Making a picture of people in public is only allowed with their approval. Placing information or footage on the internet needs explicit permission. Additionally, you can’t publish any information that may cause harm to someone or something. Do you have material of an accident or crime? Do not put it on the internet, go to the police.
During Ramadan, the holy fasting month, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking after sunrise and before sunset. Non-Muslims can only do this in designated areas or at home. Even chewing on gum in your car is prohibited.
In case of doubt or for more specific information contact the embassy of the country you’re visiting. For the import and export of goods you can also contact your travel organisation or customs. If you do get in trouble call the emergency number of your own embassy as soon as possible.