Alcohol is illegal in the United Arab Emirates, on Etihad and Emirates – know the facts and what to do!

A woman made headlines in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by being arrested at the airport after admitting to a glass of wine on her Emirates flight and an altercation at immigration. Many travelers, even frequent visitors and respected bloggers, don’t realize that it is illegal to consume alcohol or being intoxicated in the UAE, including on their airlines! So, before getting on the flight with Emirates or Etihad, make sure you understand the laws and their implications – or you might end up as headline news, too!

The Story: Based on differing accounts from the involved and the media, here is what I understand happened: Dr Ellie Holmon and her 4-year old daughter traveled to Dubai on Emirates. At immigration upon arrival she was denied entry because her passport & visa were not valid for entry and she was asked to depart the UAE. Because she holds dual passports, she was offered to enter the country on her Iranian passport after paying the visa fee and adjusting her return flight in accordance with this short-term visa. Mrs Holmon apparently became upset, refused to do any of those options and started taking video of the officer in a restricted area. The officer asked her if she had consumed alcohol and she admitted to having a glass of wine on the flight to Dubai. Subsequently she was arrested for filming in a restricted area, being disrespectful to the immigration official and for public intoxication in the UAE. She was separated from her 4 year-old child and held in detention. She has now been released with an apology from the UAE government.

The Facts: Dr. Holmon committed multiple offenses that would get you in trouble in many places you’d travel to: She traveled without valid passport or visa, she filmed in a restricted area and she was disrespectful towards on officer. While I wasn’t there and don’t know how severe it was, treating other people with respect should be common sense, especially when interacting with the government officials and law enforcement of a country you are visiting. We have no reports how the officer behaved or treated her.
The consequences of traveling without valid documents, filming in a restricted area or being disrespectful to law enforcement will differ. In some countries, it might be only a slap on the wrist and the chance to fix the issue. In others it might be more severe – I could see somebody in the US be detained for failure to have a valid visa and filming a US immigration official! It is the responsibility of each traveler to have valid documents and behave according to the norms of the country they are visiting.

But what really got the worldwide headline attention was the fact that a prison sentence was looming over the woman for being intoxicated. And even frequent visitors to the UAE and respected bloggers don’t know the law, so here it is, plain and simple:

  • It is illegal to buy, possess or consume alcohol or to appear to be intoxicated in public in the UAE. Period, black & white! The UAE Law on Alcoholic Beverage Control issued in 1972, stipulates in Article 3 that “no person is allowed to import or export or manufacture or obtain alcoholic beverages or consume them or offer them to third parties, except for cases provided for in this law and accordingly with conditions set forth therein”.You can find  a good explanation of the law here or purchase the full text here!
  • Alcohol License: The “conditions set forth” refer to another section of the law regulating alcohol licenses. Non-muslim, male residents above the age of 21 and earn a minimum salary can apply for an alcohol license, enabling them to purchase from licensed businesses, possess and consume alcohol. Licenses are not available to UAE citizen, muslim foreign residents, minors or visitors! There are restrictions for women. 
    As a consequence, buying or drinking of alcohol for visitors is illegal in the UAE and there is currently no way to make it legal for visitors!
  • Public Intoxication: Even though you can drink alcohol at home, it is illegal to be intoxicated in public. If law enforcement deems your behavior as inappropriate in any manner, for example causing public offense or being disrespectful in some way, perceives you to be intoxicated and a test shows alcohol in your blood, you can be punished for intoxication, regardless of how much alcohol is in your blood or where you consumed it! Even if you consumed alcohol legally in your country of departure, are noticed for any offense in the UAE and found to have alcohol in your blood, you still can be punished!
  • Emirates & Eithad Flights: The situation on flights with Etihad or Emirates is even more tricky: On airplanes in international airspace the law of the country the plane is registered in, applies, according to the Tokyo Convention (1969). That means, as soon as an Etihad Airways or Emirates plane enters international airspace, UAE law applies and consumption of alcohol without a license and public intoxication are illegal!

The Situation: As crystal clear as these laws are, they are widely misunderstood, because they are not rigorously enforced and there is a big grey zone that’s causing confusion even among frequent travelers to the UAE and bloggers:

Novotel Abu Dhabi Restaurant

  • Hotels in the UAE do not display their liquor license and do not require do see an individual’s permit when purchasing alcohol. As a foreigner, you can order alcohol in any international hotel, bar or restaurant without a license without any problem. Even tourism-oriented web sites of Dubai or Abu Dhabi highlight the fact that you are able to buy alcohol as a tourist, while also saying that there are stiff penalties if you are caught drunk!
  • Emirates and Etihad serve free alcoholic beverages to their passengers on flights without any announcement that alcohol consumption requires a license or without requiring to see one before serving alcohol – here is the Etihad menu with an excellent selection of wine and champagne:

    Etihad Menu

  • The strict laws on the books are not enforced rigorously, so thousands of visitors to the UAE and passengers of Etihad and Emirates  each year happily consume alcohol without any consequences. The UAE have softened the application of the laws to enable tourism and air travel on their carriers, but have until today not changed the laws or expanded the issuance of alcohol licenses to visitors!
  • But, as cases like Dr. Holmon and others show, the laws still exist and can be enforced at the discretion of UAE law enforcement!
  • You are responsible for knowing and obeying the law. You are accountable for acquiring a license as a foreign resident and checking the license of the seller. As a non-resident visitor, you are breaking the law at your own risk and are accountable for the consequences.

What you can do:

  • If you don’t like it, don’t go: If you can not combine the laws and customs of another country with your own values, don’t go! Going to another country, being disrespectful to their customs or breaking the laws is not a good idea and can get you into more trouble than you bargained for.
  • Know the law, obey the law: If you visit another country, you need to familiarize yourself with your host nations customs and laws and respect them. In the UAE, that includes no alcohol consumption, no public intoxication and a host of other rules, like no sex outside marriage, no hotel room sharing with a person you are not married or related to and no drug use!
  • Know, the law, skirt the law and keep your head down: The UAE has decided to relax the enforcement of the alcohol laws for foreign visitors to enable tourism and air travel to grow, but without changing the laws on the books. They continue to enforce strict rules on orderly public behavior and respect for their customs, which leads to a grey zone where you are breaking the law, but are not persecuted for it, unless you catch the attention of law enforcement.
    You can have a glass of wine at your hotel with dinner or a night cap at the bar and head back to your room without ever running into trouble. Thousands of visitors to the UAE do so every year and return happily and without issues.
  • Break the law, attract attention and get caught: What all public cases of alcohol persecution I have reviewed have in common is that the individuals came to the attention of law enforcement through behavior deemed inappropriate, including indecent touching, starting fights, offending locals, being disrespectful to government officials, law enforcement or other locals or publicly flaunting the laws and customs.
    Once even a small infraction has been committed, just like anywhere else, the UAE law enforcement can throw the whole, thick book of laws at you and the alcohol law is the sharpest weapon they have! At that point you are at the mercy of the UAE government, because you broke the law, regardless whether you know it or whether it was enforced upon others or not!

So, you have to make a choice on what you want to do and here is my take:

I am writing this blog because I wholeheartedly believe that travel builds understanding between people of different origins. Communication and open, honest exchange foster understanding and bring about change. I advocate to travel to countries, especially when they are very different from your own, because it can open your eyes and mind towards other cultures.  It will hopefully to the same for the people from the host culture you are engaging with! The more people meet and engage people from different countries and get to know each other, the less likely they are to think of “us” vs “them” or as enemies!
I encourage you to visit the UAE, to respect their customs and laws and not to take more risks than you are willing to bear the consequences for. Visit and learn more about the culture than you read in the headlines and make up your own mind. My visit to the UAE was an enriching experience and you can read my Abu Dhabi guide to find my impressions and tips! 

But I also believe in transparency. Saudia, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia, is a dry carrier and obeys and enforces the strict alcohol prohibitions of the country by not serving any alcohol  on-board their planes. It is hard to reconcile for me that the UAE will serve free alcohol on their government-owned airlines, then reserve the right to punish passengers for drinking it. The current “grey zone” is an undue burden for passengers and casual visitor. It took me a few hours to analyse the legal situation and you just have to read a few travel blogs to see that even frequent travelers and respected travel bloggers don’t know the law! How can you expect casual visitors to understand it?

As simple solution or at least first step would be to introduce an ePermit in the UAE, allowing visitors to apply for an alcohol license online – or to just include it in your Etihad or Emirates ticket. It would also help to include some do’s & don’t’s prominently in the airline magazine and on UAE tourism sites, so visitors better understand local laws and customs.
Incidents like this help neither travelers nor the UAE. Those measures would create a more transparent legal situation for visitor, while allowing the UAE to maintain their customs and laws and still enforce respectful and orderly behavior in the country, regardless of alcohol involvement! It would make travel to the UAE easier and the experience better for all involved!

What do you think? Have you visited the UAE and how do you deal with the local laws and customs of the countries you visit?

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