Getting detained in Dubai is a terrifying prospect. It is something that you often read about happening to unsuspecting British tourists in the news.
When I travelled solo to Dubai in 2017, I obviously had no idea that I was going to arouse suspicion and get detained at the UAE border. Dubai was never actually in my original travel plans.
However, since I was “in the area” in Oman (strange, expensive logic) and I was looking for a way to relax and regroup after a recent breakup, I thought that Dubai would be the perfect place to unwind.
My experience being detained in Dubai
While I was in Dubai I just posted loads of positive pictures and captions of the UAE on my social media. Why?
Because after my border experience of being detained in Dubai, I was paranoid that I would be thrown into a Dubai jail for some reason or another.
I couldn’t understand the actions of the UAE border agents or their attitudes. It ruined my trip and made me nervous for the duration of my time in the country.
I was paranoid that I would be pinned with a ridiculous charge and thrown in jail. There, I would encounter a 6-foot, hairy-legged, monobrowed woman named Rococo who would make me her prison wife. (I would not fare well in jail).
Ultimately, I ended up having a wonderful time in Dubai itself. Gowever it was getting there that was the tricky part.
Hilariously, before the events in this article unfolded, I was sitting on the bus ready to cross the border from Muscat, pre-emptively writing an article via the notes section of my phone about how easy it was to cross the border from Oman to Dubai.
I wanted to get ahead of my blog post scheduling and I assumed it would be okay. As it turns out, karma was watching my cocky self.
Leaving Magical Oman
The bus from Muscat to Dubai should take around 7 hours. It’s quite a distance.
However, the cost variance between the bus and the plane was notable ($15 vs $90). So, I figured that by the time I went through the hassle of getting to the airport, waiting around at the airport, etc, the journey time would be kind of similar anyway.
Also, I wanted to write an article about the border crossing for my blog to bump up my monthly traffic. (Life priorities, you see).
The bus rolled up to the Oman exit side of the border crossing and the process there was a breeze. The Immigration Officer had everyone form two separate queues dividing them into men and women and letting all the ladies go first.
(Thank God for blessing me with feminine parts). The guy briefly glanced at my passport and let me go to enjoy one last cup of Omani karak tea.
(It is worth planning an Oman itinerary for the tea alone!) Then, I had to board the bus once again and roll on through to the UAE side of the border.
Question Time with UAE Immigration
The bus arrived at Hatta, UAE. Everyone had to exit the bus once again in order to pass through UAE border control.
I presented my passport to the Immigration Officer in the same way that I had done with the Oman border guard. However, the guy was quite short and snappy with me.
He told me to go and sit down while he verified my passport was real. I waited and waited as he worked through everyone else in the queue before calling me up again.
When he called me up again, another three guys had joined him and proceeded to question me about my passport. Why did I look so different? Had I had some plastic surgery?
(Excuse you Sir! This is actually my face!)
Was I transporting medicines? Was I travelling on someone else’s passport?
The questions were ridiculous, and I was in utter disbelief. I remained quite friendly and chatty with the Immigration Officers.
I offered them an alternate ID so that I could prove who I was. For instance, I had my International Driving License with a photo on it, as well as my citizenship card from South Korea, a ton of bank cards, and even other photo visas within my passport.
The Immigration Officers were having none of it though. They even went so far as to look at my passport with a magnifying glass.
(Precisely what are you looking for son?) I was asked to wait in a little room where they kept me for almost two hours.
They repeated the same questions over and over until they finally let me go. Since I was travelling on a bus from Muscat, this held up the other passengers who were pretty irked by this point.
Getting detained at the Dubai border
I reclaimed my seat on the bus, put my headphones in, and started eating a milky bar. (Yes, that is appropriate grown-up 28-year-old entrepreneur behaviour)!
The bus turned the corner but there were four guys standing in the middle of the road, arms outstretched to stop the bus. I thought that maybe it was another checkpoint.
I craned my neck to see out of the window as the bus came to a steady halt.
As the doors opened, the Immigration Officers boarded the bus again for the specific purpose of taking me off the bus. There was no sense of “innocent until proven guilty” or having the decency to explain to me what was going on, just aggression.
They asked me to take all of my things off the bus. I had a small handbag with me, a medium-sized backpack on the upper shelf, and a large suitcase under the hold of the bus.
I couldn’t reach the backpack and the guy leaned in next to me yelling in Arabic for me to hurry up and get it down. The handle was trapped under someone else’s bag and eventually, another passenger got up to help me reach it.
The Immigration Officer was yelling at me to hurry off the bus, grabbing my arm and yanking me down the steps. I told him about my other suitcase in the baggage hold and he huffed, ranting angrily in Arabic once again.
Held at the UAE Border
After being taken into another small interrogation room, a gloved woman entered and took everything out of each of my bags. She examined every item – from the receipts within my purse to the notes I had jotted down in my journal.
She asked me again if I was carrying medicines, and yelled instructions at me about what to open. Every now and then she left the room and wandered off leaving me to wonder what on earth was going on.
The questioning and checking process took hours. Frustratingly, this was to the point where my bus left without me leaving me stranded by myself in Hatta, UAE.
It’s hard to convey precisely how stressful the situation was just by writing about it here. I was held there for almost an entire day and spoken to like I was a criminal.
I was not allowed to use the bathroom and made to feel uncomfortable when I had done absolutely nothing to arouse suspicion or concern.
After apparently deciding that their checks were enough, the border guards told me that I could go. However, since my bus left without me, I had to then take an exorbitantly expensive cab from the Hatta border all the way to Dubai.
Even as I was leaving, the female border guard was making notes about me and writing down details from my passport. I can only guess why.
When they decided to let me leave, there was no apology for the misunderstanding. There was no clarifying their processes or anything like that.
It was just a kind of “get out now” at 11 o’clock at night when I was travelling to the UAE alone.
Contacting the British Embassy in Dubai
The British Embassy in the UAE is headquartered in Dubai. I tried to reach out to them to discuss what had happened at the border and they refused to comment or get involved. It took several weeks after I left Dubai to even receive a response from them.
It should be noted that should you find yourself detained in Dubai or involved in any kind of scuffle, the British Embassy’s policy is that they do not get involved in proceedings.
They leave the UAE to handle everything themselves. That would be fair enough if we were talking about a country that was renowned for fair treatment and justice of foreign and expat people.
However, Dubai and the UAE are notorious for being “strict” or for being overzealous when it comes to holding or prosecuting people.
People know that UAE laws are strict. However, after reading more and more information about occurrences similar to mine, don’t have a positive feeling about returning to the UAE again in the future which I am sorry to say.
Unfair treatment in Dubai is not unheard of
I have also read accounts of people who were actually jailed on flimsy charges. Or alternatively, they experienced the UAE’s own law being twisted to serve an agenda.
I always try to take an objective view even if I have negative experiences in the places I travel. But sometimes our personal experiences and traumas can put us off from wanting to return to a destination.
You may be reading all of that thinking “but I went to Dubai and had such a wonderful time!”. I understand that.
However, my personal belief is that everything is fine travelling in the UAE until it isn’t. And if there are people that can be arrested for carrying medicines that are actually legal under Dubai’s own ruling, or for flimsy accusations that result in them being beaten and abused in jail, the same could happen to anyone else too.
I understand that when incidents like this happen, it’s human nature to assume that the individual involved must have been doing something wrong in order to draw attention and suspicion to him/herself. In my case, I was dressed conservatively, very polite with the Immigration Officers, and can speak a little Arabic which I used to greet them with.
I was by no means a disrespectful, obnoxious western tourist. Who knows what else could happen if you are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
FAQs Detained at the Dubai border
Hopefully, you, yourself, or your friends and family never have experienced being detained in Dubai. If you do, or you are unsure of the whereabouts of a loved one that had travelled to Dubai, it is a good idea to seek legal advice or reach out to your country’s embassy/consulate in Dubai.
Do you have any further questions or ponderings on this topic? The answers to some frequently asked questions about being detained in Dubai are detailed below.
Hopefully, you will find the information you are searching for there. If not, please do not hesitate to reach out.
Or alternatively, make use of the useful contacts and charities detailed in this article.
How long can you be detained in Dubai?
A person can be legally arrested for 48 hours at a local police station in Dubai. (This is a similar time period to what you will find in many other countries).
If you are questioned at a UAE border or entry point/airport, etc, you can be held and questioned for several hours. This may happen if something out of the ordinary is detected, or you are unfortunate enough to come across an overzealous Immigration agent.
If a person is arrested for 48 hours and there is evidence that a crime has been committed, they will be transferred to the public prosecution. The individual can be held in police custody for anywhere between 24 hours and 14 days.
What does detained in Dubai mean?
Being detained in Dubai means that someone is being held at a Dubai border point or police station on suspicion of a crime. (Or having been caught and charged with a crime).
“Detained in Dubai” is also the name of a London-based charitable organisation founded by Radha Stirling in 2008. Stirling created the organisation with a view to help people unfairly held in Dubai or treated to unacceptable conditions in the country.
Since its creation, the organisation has helped dozens of British citizens and people of other nationalities that have been unfairly detained, or subject to abuse/brutality in Dubai.
How do I find out if someone is detained in Dubai?
If you haven’t heard from a friend or family member after they have travelled to Dubai and you suspect that they may have been detained, there are a couple of places to reach out. First of all, you should be sure to contact your country’s embassy in Dubai to let them know what has happened.
You can ask if they have any information on the person, or for them to start an inquiry. In parallel, you should also reach out to the local authorities in Dubai.
The first step would be emailing the Dubai police. Their email address is [email protected].
What can you get locked up for in Dubai?
Dubai is a conservative Muslim country with some strict laws appertaining to how you should behave in public. Public displays of affection, swearing, lewd gestures, making offensive or harassing comments, being drunk and disorderly, and photographing people without their consent can all lead to prosecution.
It is important to read up on the local laws and customs prior to your trip. That way, you can avoid getting in trouble or inadvertently causing offense.
You can also be approached by the police (but unlikely detained or arrested) if you are dressed inappropriately. This is particularly likely during Ramadan or other religious occasions and events.
Take care when choosing what to wear in Dubai. You should always dress modestly – cover your shoulders and legs, and not display any cleavage.
Formal attire is often required in many of Dubai’s upscale restaurants, while dress codes can be more liberal at certain clubs. Women do not have to cover their hair unless they are going inside a mosque.
What happens if you get caught kissing in Dubai?
Kissing and signs of public affection are criminal offenses in Dubai. So is making any inappropriate advances towards women or harassing women in any way.
Such things can result in fines or even jail time/deportation if they are reported and charged. Remember that Dubai is a very conservative country.
Many laws here are much stricter than what you may be used to in your home country. The kissing rule may sound amusing from an outside perspective.
But remember that when you travel to another country, you have to adhere to and be respectful of, their rules.
Final thoughts on getting detained in Dubai
Do you have any further thoughts on getting detained in Dubai? Has anything like this ever happened to you when travelling across international borders?
This article was purely written to share my experiences of crossing the border to Dubai and the unfortunate treatment I endured by the border guards as a result. However, if you or your friends/relatives find themselves detained in Dubai or encountering any problems in the UAE I would recommend notifying your country’s embassy.
Make them aware of what has happened and see what information and support they can provide. Many international embassies (including the British embassy) refuse to get involved in foreign proceedings.
They say that they have no jurisdiction in Dubai and can often feel very dismissive and unhelpful. So, while notifying them as a formality is a good idea, you also need the help of a Lawyer.
Do also be sure to reach out to the London-based “Detained in Dubai” organisation if you need help. Hopefully, you will not need it.
Are you planning a trip to Dubai for the first time? You might also enjoy this post on seeing Dubai on a budget.