I am going to pick on Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to make a point. Recent reports of Americans and Brits engaging in what seem to be normal responses to situations in Dubai indicate that while in the UAE, travelers must exercise extreme caution.
The first case was a New York college student who was sentenced to a year in prison for touching the arm of a security guard at the airport during a stopover. According to Express, the student was ultimately allowed to leave after enduring enormous expense and emotional trauma.
As you likely know, the main source for information about travel precautions for U.S. travelers is the State Department. However, it is easy to overlook the obligation to inform traveler clients of the risks in some destinations. The New York student was caught up in her incident during a stopover.
To see what the U.S. State Department has to say about the risks of traveling in or through Dubai, I looked on the State Department's website. The result was illuminating and alarming. A sample follows (boldface type mine):
Arrest Notification: UAE authorities do not routinely notify the U.S. Embassy or consulate of a U.S. citizen’s arrest. If you are arrested or detained, ask police or prison officials to notify the U.S. Embassy or consulate immediately. If you are not allowed to do so, ask a friend or family member to contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate.
Alcohol: Alcohol is sold only in very limited areas including certain restaurants and hotels. Public drunkenness and driving under the influence, regardless of one’s blood alcohol content level, are considered very serious offenses. Persons arrested on alcohol-related offenses are regularly detained for many days as they await a court hearing. Penalties may include hefty jail sentences, substantial fines, and, for Muslims (even those holding U.S. citizenship), lashings.
Drugs: UAE law imposes the death sentence for convicted drug traffickers. Possession of even trace amounts of illegal drugs (including in the bloodstream) can result in lengthy prison sentences of up to 15 years. Bail generally is not granted to those accused of drug crimes.
Possession or consumption of marijuana in any form, including detections of trace amounts in the bloodstream, is illegal in the UAE, even if a doctor’s medical card is presented. Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) are illegal in the UAE. Possession or importation of CBD products, including those found in prescription and over-the-counter medications in the United States and other countries, are prosecuted in the same manner as marijuana possession. The UAE's anti-narcotics program also includes poppy seeds on its list of controlled substances. The importation and possession of poppy seeds in any and all forms, including as dried decorative plants, are strictly prohibited.
Persons may be charged and convicted even if the controlled substances were ingested outside of the UAE as long as traces are still present in the bloodstream upon arrival in the UAE. If suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, individuals may be required to submit to blood and/or urine tests and may be subject to prosecution.
Codes of Behavior and Dress: Public decency and morality laws throughout the UAE are much stricter than in the United States. Penalties for public displays of affection or immodesty may be imposed. Sexual relations outside marriage are illegal in the UAE and convicted individuals have been punished by lengthy jail sentences. Pregnancy outside of marriage can result in arrest and detention. Doctors may ask for proof of marriage during pre-natal visits, and those giving birth in the UAE must present a marriage certificate to receive medical care and register the child’s birth. Failure to do so has resulted in the arrests of both unmarried mothers and fathers, as well as deportation.
Individuals may be arrested, fined, and/or deported for committing any of the following acts: making rude gestures, swearing, touching another person without his/her permission, and making derogatory statements about the UAE, the royal families, the local governments or other people. Travelers should keep in mind the cultural differences among the many people who coexist in the UAE and should be cognizant that unwitting actions, including clothing choices, may invite unwanted attention.
Debt and Financial Crime: Crimes of financial fraud, including passing bad checks and non-payment or late payment of bills (including hotel bills, hospital bills, traffic or parking fines, and late payment of credit cards, utility bills, etc.), are regarded seriously in the UAE and often result in imprisonment and/or fines. A personal check written as a guarantee for the payment of a personal or business debt may be submitted to a local bank for collection at any time for the full amount of the check. If the account holder does not have sufficient funds, he/she may be charged with passing a bad check. Bail generally is not available to non-residents of the UAE who are arrested for crimes involving fraud. Debtors can be held in prison until their debts are paid or until an agreement is reached between the parties. Passports may be seized by the UAE government to guarantee that debtors settle their cases. Financial cases may be further complicated by debtors being unable to work in the UAE without passports while still being held responsible for their debts.
Photography: Taking photographs of UAE military facilities, sensitive civilian sites, airports, some beaches, or foreign diplomatic missions – including the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General – may result in arrest, detention, and/or prosecution by local authorities. Travelers should be aware of signs which indicate where photography is prohibited. Note that it is illegal to take photographs of other people without their consent. In addition, engaging in mapping activities, especially mapping that includes the use of GPS equipment, without coordination with UAE authorities, may have the same consequences. (This does not apply to use of publicly available online maps.)
Social Media: The UAE has strict laws regarding use of the internet and social media. Individuals have been arrested and criminally convicted for posting information on social media sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) that local authorities determined was disturbing to the order of the UAE. Users of social media should be cautious about online posting of information that might be deemed to insult or challenge the local or national government. Individuals should avoid posting insults or derogatory information about governments, institutions, or individuals.
Religious Proselytizing: While individuals are free to worship as they choose, and facilities are available for that purpose, religious proselytizing is not permitted in the UAE. Persons violating this law, even unknowingly, may be imprisoned or deported.
LGBTQI+ Travelers: The UAE government does not accept passports with the “X” gender marker. This applies to travel to, in, or through the UAE. Although the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate General are not aware of any recent arrests or prosecutions for consensual, same-sex relations and cross-dressing, they remain illegal in the UAE. See our LGBTQI+ Travel Information page and section six of our Human Rights report for further details.
I emphasize that these are only a sample from one country. The traps for the unwary are obvious. Merely touching someone’s arm to get their attention can apparently lead to arrest and imprisonment.
Every travel advisor with a client traveling to or through a country with similar “rules” has a duty to warn about the severe risks associated with what would be considered normal acts in the United States. You should be certain to provide the client with the complete actual text, or failing that, a link to the State Department information about the country and a strong warning that the client must read the information before traveling. Secure a signed or at least email acknowledgment that the client has received and read the information. Store the acknowledgment securely.
Does this mean that every travel advisor must be an expert on the local laws of every country to which she has clients traveling to or through? Maybe not an expert, but you certainly should be aware and alert to the risks faced by unknowing travelers you send to or through these countries.
This is not to say that these countries are not entitled to have the laws and regulations they choose. Just like the United States, they have that right. Your responsibility is to be as sure as you reasonably can that your travelers don’t walk into a legal buzzsaw or worse out of ignorance that could have been avoided.