Please note – the views in the following feature are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Safe Travels Magazine. Before travel, we recommend that you always do your own research, read travel advisories and buy appropriate travel insurance.

In the latest edition of our ‘Is it safe to …?’ series, we asked a range of experts if it is safe to go to the United Arab Emirates.

Government travel advice

Links to travel advice on visiting Thailand from the following governments –

Please note that the travel advice varies – it is worth reading them all and reaching your own conclusion.

Like what you read? Sign up to our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to stay up to date.


David Hurrell at red24, an iJet company

Website: www.red24.com
Twitter: @red24
Twitter: @geopolrisk

David Hurrell is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at red24, an iJet company

How safe is it to visit the UAE?

The United Arab Emirates is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. The country is politically stable, there is a negligible record of terrorist activity, crime rates are low, Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions are almost non-existent, and kidnappings seldom occur. The regime faces very little popular opposition. The security forces are highly capable with state of the art equipment. It’s safe to go to the UAE, but…

What are the biggest risks?

But risks abound. The UAE is in one of the most unstable parts of the world and accordingly shares regional risks with the potential threats to both personal and operational security. A viable threat is the potential for blowback due to the UAE’s assertive foreign policy, including its military involvement in Yemen, backing the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS), covert security assistance to the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Libya, support for President Abdel Fattah Sisi in Egypt at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood, and support for rebel groups in the Syrian civil war. Another worry is the threat posed by fighters returning to the Gulf. Blowback could take the form of terrorist attacks in the country. Targets could include popular tourist sites or public spaces, government buildings, energy infrastructure, Western interests, and military assets such the Al Dhafra Air Base, which hosts US troops. It should be noted that the UAE security force and intelligence apparatus have effective counterterrorism capabilities which substantially mitigates the risk of a complex attack. A distant threat includes that posed by Houthi-fired ballistic missiles from Yemen – the shooting down of a missile near Riyadh on Nov. 4 confirms that a small number of Houthi missiles are, in theory, capable of reaching the UAE, and the group has in the past reportedly threatened to attack targets in the UAE.

Western nationals need to be aware of cultural factors in the UAE, and in the Arab world in general. There have been numerous cases of foreign nationals being detained for relatively minor offenses (form the point of view of western nationals) such as being intoxicated in public, or displaying public intimacy. Cohabiting, homosexuality, cross-dressing and adultery are illegal, and drug use of possession can incur severe penalties. People, including foreign nationals showing support for Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, or other undesirable elements, either verbally or on social media, could face arrest, a fine, or possibly deportation.

What are the overlooked risks?

Geopolitical risks probably, whether the emergence of internal tensions between the seven emirates, or external, such as fallout from the escalating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is not inconceivable that political tensions may emerge amid disputed successions in the emirates – the death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed for example- or via the smaller emirates resistance to the expansion of Abu Dhabi’s political and economic influence within the federation. Resultant instability may however affect investor confidence more than any form of operational disruption, barring a major conflagration.

Furthermore, amid the numerous proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the UAE may at some point find itself caught between the overlapping spheres of influence of regional or extra-regional powers, with destabilising consequences. The UAE’s participation in, or support for, Saudi-led efforts to roll back Iranian influence in the wider region, such as the recent crisis in Lebanon, (in which Saudi Arabia influenced the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri to undermine the Iranian allied political-militant group, Hezbollah) will further aggravate tensions between the Gulf Sunni monarchies and Iran. Due to the low-likelihood of direct conflict between Iran and the Sunni Arab monarchies, Iran may employ its significant cyber capabilities to target Emirati networks, including engaging in industrial espionage, or disrupting communications, with the goal of inflicting economic harm through commercial disruptions.

In addition, the UAE’s uncompromising opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and related groups (such as the MB-affiliate, Al Islah affiliate in the UAE) put it at risk in the event that MB-linked splinter groups adopt militant tactics, such as Hasm Movement in Egypt.  These are of course hypothetical scenarios, but the ingredients are there.

How should people mitigate this?

Good location intelligence is key in mitigating in-country risks. Clients should solicit the services of a proven security provider able to ensure that employees are regularly briefed on relevant security developments. Generally, common sense security precautions that one would employ in any low-risk foreign destination would suffice for travellers to the UAE, with emphasis placed on respecting cultural quirks.

What duty of care provisions should employers sending staff to the UAE have in place? What should employees ask for?

Employees should ask for peace of mind, knowing that adequate security provisions are in place for their area of operation. This includes having in place crisis management and emergency evacuation plans. As stated, an external intelligence provider with proven risk mitigation experience is key. In this regard, red24’s extensive crisis management experience, supported by iJet international’s integrated risk management platform, provide a high-quality hedge against political and security risks in the United Arab Emirates and beyond.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates by Kai Wang on Unsplash

Jamie Thomson at Northcott Global Solutions

Email: risk@northcottglobalsolutions.com
Website: http://www.northcottglobalsolutions.com/
Twitter: @NorthcottGS

Northcott Global Solutions is the new generation of global emergency response, and the only dedicated political, natural disaster and medical Evacuation provider designed to meet modern, commercial travel patterns. NGS has a particular expertise in drafting bespoke political reports for travellers and investors to fragile and conflict-affected states.

How safe is it to visit the UAE?

There have been stories in the media over the last few years regarding Western travellers who have been arrested by Emirati security forces for apparently minor indiscretions – excessive intimacy on the beach, casual sexual relations, or merely touching someone in a bar to maintain balance. All travellers to the UAE must be aware that the country has a Muslim legal code, and that Islamic courts operate alongside civil and criminal courts, so actions that would not cause a stir in Europe might create offence and attract the attention of security forces in the UAE. Two important considerations need to be borne in mind regarding this issue.

Firstly, the personality of the respective ruler of each emirate has a direct impact upon the conservatism of that emirate’s society. For instance, Sheikh Sultan of Sharjah is elderly and old-fashioned: as a result, Sharjah is generally recognised as the most conservative emirate, permitting little leeway over the selling and consumption of alcohol, and taking a stricter approach to orders of dress and social norms. In contrast, Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai is much more well-travelled, forward thinking, and commercially-minded, resulting in Dubai being more relaxed in its interpretation of the same rules.

Secondly, the two wealthiest and politically most important emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, know that, on top of enormous oil reserves, much of their modern success is dependent upon attracting international workers – skilled technicians from (usually) Western nations, and non-skilled labour from the Asian sub-continent and East Asia. Less than 20% of the population are Emiratis, and they are mostly employed in government jobs, including civil service, military and police. The remaining 80% work in roles that are critical to the successful operation and wealth generation of the nation. Therefore, the leaders of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are aware that they cannot afford to chase away valuable workers with an overly conservative interpretation of the law.

So, whilst the stories hitting the headlines of Westerners being arrested for behaving relatively normally are true, these incidents are not actually very common, and as long as travellers retain some common sense in their daily lives and social interactions, then it is very safe indeed to visit the UAE.

What are the biggest risks?

The highest-profile risks concern behaviour, most notably regarding alcohol consumption and sexual relations. Whilst “adultery” is a crime, as long as sexual activity is discreet and kept behind closed doors, then travellers should have nothing to worry about. Whilst there is a demonstrable risk that a victim of sexual assault may find themselves facing charges regarding “decency” or “adultery”, this does not mean that the threat of sexual assault is in any way higher than in any European nation.

All the hotel complexes in Dubai have bars and nightclubs that are designed to attract Westerners, and they all sell a broad selection of alcoholic drinks – in theory, an alcohol licence is required to purchase drink, but in Dubai and Abu Dhabi this is generally ignored. The major risk in relation to drinking is that a reveller will either attract attention to himself, or vomit in a taxi – these situations are likely to end badly, potentially with police involvement.

Terrorism is a risk that should be of greater concern to travellers. The UAE has not been the victim of any terrorist attack in recent years, and it enjoys close co-operation with UK and US counter-terrorism forces. However, the intent of Islamists to conduct terrorist atrocities in the Western-style shopping malls and tower blocks of Dubai is significant. In 2015, an Islamist cell was uncovered and arrested, whose members were apparently planning to attack tourists and expatriates in shopping centres and hotels. There are also oil installations and military bases throughout the country that could be prime targets for Islamist terrorist groups. It has become a more obvious target since joining the international coalition that conducted air strikes against Islamic State in 2014, and since it became involved in the civil war in Yemen, assisting the KSA-backed Sunni government against Shia Houthi rebels. The capacity for terrorists to conduct a spectacular attack in the UAE is, however, low, given close monitoring by the security services, and comprehensive screening at the airports.

What are the overlooked risks?

In reality, the greatest risk in the UAE that rarely earns a mention, is that of road traffic accidents. RTAs are a frequent occurrence in the UAE. Multi-lane motorways not only connect major cities, but also run through business and residential districts. Roads are occupied with powerful vehicles (particularly 4x4s and sports cars), and standards of driving are poor (eating lunch, playing with smartphones, and titivating makeup are all activities seen conducted by drivers on the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai). Speeding, dangerous overtaking, and tailgating are standard. Outside the city limits, drivers face the threat of pedestrians or animals wandering across the road.

The other important, often-overlooked, risk relates to how visitors use social media. Travellers must be conscious that their social media outlets can be accessed by state security authorities, and that if they make comments or add material that could be considered offensive to the Emirati government, then they may face some sort of criminal charges, resulting in fines or even a jail sentence. For instance, the UAE cut diplomatic links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing the Qatari government of supporting terrorism – since then, any statement of support or sympathy towards Qatar by UAE residents can result in criminal charges. At the same time, posting derogatory comments on Twitter or Facebook about the ruling families is very unwise, as the state has been known to clamp down hard on any sort of political dissent. There are also restrictions on photographing people without their consent – photos posted on social media should not include people whose consent has not been sought.

How should people mitigate this?

Some risks are easy to mitigate. Visitors to the UAE should familiarise themselves with local laws and be conscious of their own behaviour. They should dress appropriately, should limit their activity on social media, and should be careful to keep sexual activity private. Revellers must be careful not to drink more than they can manage, and should remain in groups of trusted friends on a night out – this will allow them to police each other’s alcohol intake, behaviour, and be vigilant for any threats. In general, as long as visitors behave in a manner that would be considered acceptable in most Western countries, then they should have no trouble at all.

Other risks are more problematic. Those who choose to drive will be safer in a sports utility vehicle. Those relying on taxis should check that the driver is licensed, and should feel confident in asking a driver to drop them off early if they do not feel comfortable with a driver’s ability. Those looking for a safe way to get to work every day ought to consider the bus and metro as a reliable alternative.

To mitigate the risk of terrorist attacks, travellers should be vigilant for any suspicious activity or suspicious packages, particularly in hotels or shopping malls. They should be prepared to follow the direction of security staff at all times. When entering a vulnerable area for the first time, they should familiarise themselves with security exits.

What duty of care provisions should employers sending staff to the UAE have in place? What should employees ask for?

Employers should ensure that they sponsor the movement of all expatriate staff into the UAE. They should arrange for employees to have a residence visa, a work permit, a UAE identity card, medical insurance, a medical check and an alcohol licence. They should find out which of their employees is planning to bring their family out to the UAE, and should help them to arrange the sponsorship, certificates and visas associated with that move.

Employees should ask for advice and support with all aspects of living in the UAE, including transport arrangements (recommending vehicles to hire, or public transport passes), living arrangements (assisting with finding the right apartment or house for each employee), banking arrangements (ensuring that employees have the correct current and savings accounts).

Dubai, United Arab Emirates by Rishab Lamichhane on Unsplash

Craig Webb, Security and Political Risk Analyst at Healix International

Website: http://www.healix-international.com/
Twitter: @healix_security

 

Craig is a London-based Security and Political Risk Analyst at Healix International and HX Global. His professional work focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region, though he also contributes to a number of global risk management products and service offerings. Healix International and HX Global are leading providers of global travel risk management and international medical, security and travel assistance services.

How safe is it to visit the UAE?

At Healix, we assess the UAE to be a MINIMAL security risk destination. The UAE presents a stable security risk environment and lacks any credible threat actors at the present time, meaning there are no elevated or reduced sub-regions within the country. Political stability is secure, with no organised political opposition groups capable of challenging the status quo or sowing widespread dissent, crime levels are low and the risk of terrorism (though fluid) is sufficiently contained by a capable security and intelligence infrastructure.

Travel to the UAE can continue and does not necessitate the implementation of any specific security precautions, though prior research and the use of basic personal risk management protocols is always advisable.

What are the biggest risks?

We utilise a market-leading risk-modelling tool called Risk SPIDER to calculate our risk ratings. The Risk SPIDER is both a quantitative and qualitative risk model that allows Healix to map political, operational, business and security risks based on a number of defined sub-categories. The SPIDER then presents this information in a digestible format and provides our clients with a more nuanced methodology for justifying risk ratings. It also allows Healix to carry out comprehensive and ad hoc risk reviews, with the SPIDER calculating whether changing the ‘Impact’ and ‘Likelihood’ of any one sub-category will affect the overall risk rating given for that country, which is calculated using a truncated mean of all sub-category ratings.

As you can see from the below Security Risk SPIDER, we deem Societal and Cultural Issues and Terrorism to be the primary security risks facing travellers in the UAE. However, it should be stated that the aforementioned risk factors remain LOW and their comparatively high levels are reflective of an otherwise benign security risk environment where all other risk factors are rated as MINIMAL.

Societal and Cultural Issues

Despite its reputation as a regional business hub and its comparative tolerance when compared to other countries in the region, the UAE retains a culturally conservative undercurrent. As a result, travellers should be aware of the associated risks and take care to minimise the chance of inadvertently offending local Islamic customs. Most notably, female travellers are required to dress modestly in public places, covering all areas between shoulders and knees – though these requirements do not apply to private hotels, beaches etc. Most related infringements occur when travellers transition unbeknownst between private areas and those deemed ‘public’ i.e. moving from a beach to a nearby bar or shopping centre wearing swimwear.

The consumption of alcohol poses similar problems and drinking/being drunk in public areas is illegal and punishable by prison sentences or alternative, more draconian measures. Drinking in your hotel is permitted, though by the law you will require an emirate-specific personal liquor license – which are only issued to current UAE residents and denied to all Muslims – to drink elsewhere.  As with conservative dress codes, most incidents occur when transitioning between legal and illegal areas, which becomes more of an issue when travellers’ judgements are impaired by alcohol. The authorities also treat all crimes committed whilst under the influence of alcohol extremely seriously.

The risks posed by societal and cultural issues are further highlighted by the detention of a British tourist in July, charged with public indecency after allegedly touching another man’s hip whilst moving through a crowded bar. Following the incident, the authorities detained the individual for five days in Al-Barsha prison, before releasing him on bail and confiscating his passport.

Terrorism

Though it is not credible in the UAE at the current time, owing to the highly capable security and intelligence apparatus, Islamist militant groups do pose a threat to all Gulf countries. Islamist extremist groups including, but not limited to the Islamic State (IS) militant group and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continue to publicly threaten Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula, and attacks targeting Westerners have occurred in neighbouring countries. The UAE’s pro-western foreign policy, large ex-pat population and the presence of significant economic targets increases its attractiveness as a potential target for militant groups.

More liberal and high profile emirates including Abu Dhabi and Dubai possess the vast majority of attractive symbolic targets and therefore face a slightly higher risk than more conservative emirates such as Sharjah or Ras al-Khaimah. Owing to effective counter-measures, the most likely source of militant activity comes from lone-wolf actors who can be extremely difficult to detect. IS in particular has increasingly called for lone-wolves to conduct attacks using improvised weaponry, leading to numerous ‘inspired’ attacks in recent years. The use of unsophisticated tactics such as vehicle rammings and stabbings further complicates counter-terror policing and exposes possible vulnerabilities in almost all countries, including the UAE. Despite these considerations, the risk posed by terrorism remains LOW countrywide.

What are the overlooked risks?

Though our External Conflict risk rating is MINIMAL, Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) evolving counter-Iran strategy is potentially destabilising. The UAE is strongly allied with the KSA, and recent attempts to consolidate power by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) further solidify the two countries’ closeness. The influence of strong ties between MBS and UAE leader Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is evident in the former’s attempts to diversify the KSA economy and return to a more moderate interpretation of Islam; some have described Al Nahyan as a mentor. The UAE has demonstrated a willingness to follow the KSA’s strategic direction and recent moves to confront Iranian influence in various regional theatres, including Qatar, Yemen and Lebanon underscoring an increasingly volatile regional landscape. These moves are further emboldened by the US Trump administration’s equally tough anti-Iran stance.

As Iran continues to solidify its long-term influence in Syria, the KSA-led bloc will seek to challenge its political influence in other regional theatres, and this increases the risk of new proxy conflicts emerging. Whilst the UAE is unlikely to be directly affected by these conflicts, its supporting role in further KSA-led coalitions and a general escalation of regional hostilities may pose new travel risks over the coming months and years.

How should people mitigate this?

Effective mitigation procedures are dependent on the destination choice, objectives and risk appetite of the traveller. However, in the majority of cases, basic security precautions focussed on minimising risk exposure will significantly reduce the likelihood and potential impact of a security incident. The list of sample advice below is not exhaustive and travel advice should be provided on a bespoke, itinerary-specific basis for best results:

Societal and Cultural Issues

  • In the rare case of detention, you should request your diplomatic representative as soon as possible. Intervention by an embassy or a consulate often resolves the situation quickly.
  • Female travellers should cover shoulders, arms and knees in public; it is also advised to wear slightly baggy clothes and avoid open toed shoes.
  • Take care to understand restrictions. If you are taking any prescription medication, ensure you check whether it will be allowed into the country as the UAE has strict medication restrictions. Similarly, you should clarify cultural sensitivities such as drinking laws/hotel boundaries with staff or trusted local contacts.

Terrorism

  • Remain vigilant to suspicious behaviour and packages, particularly in the vicinity of priority militant targets such as symbolic Western locations (hotels, embassies etc.), other potential targets such as security personnel and assets and all government infrastructure. In the event of discovering anything untoward, remove yourself from the immediate vicinity and report it to the security forces.
  • In the event of any terror attack, remain calm and prioritise leaving the affected area immediately. Seek shelter in secure accommodation until the situation has stabilised. Developments should be closely monitored via local and social media.

What duty of care provisions should employers sending staff to the UAE have in place? What should employees ask for?

Employers should ensure that they have a detailed understanding of the operating environment that they are sending their staff to; usually, this means breaking down areas of exposure by geographic region and delegating responsibility to specific individuals in accordance with operational and cultural expertise. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, employers can outsource this task to an organisation such as Healix, which has dedicated intelligence and operations teams, each with a direct regional focus.

Building on from this, employers should ensure that their employees are briefed on the predominant security risks associated with their operating environment before travel, and advised how best to mitigate these risks. Where necessary, this should encompass a detailed travel security briefing and location-specific security training. Ensure that employees have a robust means of communication in order to communicate with their designated point of contact throughout the trip and that there is a robust travel risk management program in place covering all eventualities.

Like what you read? Sign up here for our free Daily Updates.

We also send out a Weekly K+R Update, bundling together all the kidnap, ransom and extortion news of the week in one easy to read newsletter. (Same form – options at the end.)

 Other ways to stay up to date:
          

Follow and subscribe!

Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. You can also subscribe to our free newsletters - the Daily Updates and the Weekly K+R Update.