Gay Abu Dhabi: is it safe for gay travellers?
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and second most populous city in the UAE after Dubai.
Initially, Abu Dhabi began as a magnet for the oil industry, but over the last decade, it grew massively in popularity as a tourist destination.
Abu Dhabi is on the whole, a safe destination to visit, but as is the case with Islamic countries dominated by Sharia Law, being gay is a crime here. So just like LGBTQ rights in Dubai, you run the risk of being arrested and/or deported if you get caught expressing your sexuality! Despite this, many LGBTQ expats (who are in most cases cabin crew for Etihad) live here without any problems and have even created their own underground gay scene.
We visited Abu Dhabi during our travels in the UAE and give our take on whether we think Abu Dhabi is safe for gay travellers.
Pro tip: Before heading off, you may want to consider getting a VPN which will allow to use blocked gay dating apps such as Grindr, as well as surfing anonymously.
Table of Contents
Is it legal to be gay in Abu Dhabi?
No, it is not! Article 354 of the UAE Federal Penal Code is quite clear about this: “Whoever commits rape on a female or sodomy with a male shall be punished by death.” Article 80 of the Abu Dhabi Penal Code makes sodomy punishable by imprisonment of up to 14 years.
In practice, for foreigners, if arrested for being gay, you’re more likely to get a short jail sentence and/or deportation. For locals however, punishment is more severe, including imprisonment of up to 14 years, along with fines, torture, executions, beatings, floggings and even chemical castrations!
The government has also blocked “illegal websites” as per UAE regulations, therefore all LGBTQ related websites, dating apps, as well as porn websites cannot be accessed unless you use a VPN which we strongly recommend if you do not want to get caught.
In terms of LGBTQ rights in Abu Dhabi, there are none. The only positive right we found is the right to change your legal gender.
For us, travelling as a gay couple in the UAE felt like we had gone back into the closet. In public we acted like we are “mates” and avoided any public displays of affection. For your own safety, this is what we recommend to gay travellers in Abu Dhabi.
Is there a gay scene in Abu Dhabi?
Obviously there is no official gay scene in Abu Dhabi as it’s illegal. However, as with the gay scene of India before the anti-gay laws were repealed, there is an unofficial underground “scene”. You would need to connect with locals or other LGBTQ expats living in Abu Dhabi to find out more information. Etihad airlines has its base in Abu Dhabi, so most of its crew will be based here, so you know you’re going to connect with a lot of local gay expats on Grindr or Scruff.
When we were in Abu Dhabi, we found that the gay dating apps are the most effective way for discovering the unofficial gay scene. Unfortunately, the UAE government monitors internet use and has banned most LGBTQ websites and gay dating apps. Therefore for your own safety, and ability to use Grindr in Abu Dhabi freely, we strongly advise getting a VPN service. We recommend getting ExpressVPN, a reliable and inexpensive VPN service. We used extensively during our trip in Abu Dhabi not just for Grindr but also to surf anonymously.
In terms of gay friendly hangouts in Abu Dhabi, as a general rule of thumb, the bars of the large international hotel chains are most likely to be open minded, serving international clients. A particular favourite of ours is Ray’s Bar, located on Level 62 of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, because the cocktails are delicious and the views across the city are stunning.
Gay friendly hotels to stay in Abu Dhabi
When we travel to Islamic countries which have strong anti-gay laws, we always err on the side of caution and book two single beds, especially if staying in a family run guesthouse or small hotel. Otherwise, we try to book in one of the large international chains like The St Regis Abu Dhabi, The Four Seasons Almaryah Island, or the Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche, who are most likely to have had LGBTQ training for their staff, and will no doubt have welcomed gay travellers before.
One strong bit of advice we always give is to email/call ahead and ask if the hotel are ok to host a gay couple and allow you to share a double bed. The worst thing is to run the risk of this being a problem at the check in desk!
Stay with LGBTQ locals
A budget tip to consider is to stay with locals via Airbnb. Sadly the service still doesn’t allow a LGBTQ filter in the search engine, but you can message the host privately and check if they’re ok hosting a gay couple/traveller before booking. If you sign up here, you can claim £20/$25 off your next booking.
An alternative to Airbnb is Misterbnb, which only has listings with gay hosts. We found several listings on Misterbnb for Abu Dhabi, most of who are expats. We love Misterbnb because you know you’ll be completely secure with a gay host, and as a bonus, you’ll have an immediate friend who can tell you more about what’s happening on the underground gay scene of Abu Dhabi.
So…is Abu Dhabi safe for gay travellers?
It’s a weird question to answer because on the one hand, if you keep your sexuality to yourself, behind closed doors, Abu Dhabi really is one of the safest places in the world. After all, many gay expats live and work here without any problems, and love it.
But on the other hand, the very fact that you have to constantly be careful not to appear “too gay” in public is exhausting and can make you feel quite paranoid. In particular for gay couples visiting Abu Dhabi like us, this is certainly not very romantic at all!
Nonetheless, we think it would be a shame to skip visiting Abu Dhabi. It is so unique – a luxurious paradise built in the middle of a desert, with some really impressive buildings like the Emirates Palace, the Etihad Towers and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. In this impressive Mosque you can find the largest hand-woven carpet in the world, measuring 5,630 m² (60,600.81 ft²). In addition, the world’s fastest roller coaster is here – the Formula Rossa at the Ferrari World reaches speeds of up to 149 mph (240 km/h). Abu Dhabi also has the world’s further leaning manmade tower – the Capital Gate Tower.
Just be cautious when you visit and avoid any public displays of affection. Also ensure you have a decent VPN service set up on your phone beforehand so you can use Grindr/Scruff to connect with locals without problems.
Safety precautions for gay travellers to Abu Dhabi
- Avoid public displays of affection
- Stay in the closet
- Set your social media channels to private
- Unless staying in a hotel you know welcomes gay travellers, book a room with 2 single beds (whether it is 2 queen beds or one king bed and a twin)
- Be aware at all times
- Be careful with you hang out with
- Get a good VPN services so you can use the internet and gay dating apps safely and anonymously
Travel recommendations for Abu Dhabi
A VPN is a must in Abu Dhabi: you’ll need it to access the gay dating apps as well as most LGBTQ websites which have been blocked by the government. We recommend ExpressVPN a reliable and cost effective service which allowed us to surf anonymously in Abu Dhabi.
Sim card / Wifi: Dubai has public wifi hotspots pretty much everywhere. However, public networks are never secure and they are an open door to hackers and viruses. The best solution is to rent a portable wifi device which allows you to share a secure connection between several devices and works in any country. The alternative is to buy a local SIM card for your smartphone.
Travel insurance: this is a must for any trip as you never know what could go wrong. We love World Nomads because they offer comprehensive coverage and their online claims process is very user friendly.
Hotels: when we plan a holiday, we start with Tripadvisor to research hidden gems and read reviews, then cross reference with Booking.com to find the best deals. But as mentioned above, call/email ahead to check they’re ok with two men sharing a bed. Also ask the hotel if they will give you a discount for booking directly with them: they often will do so as to avoid paying the high commissions to the booking engines.