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.
Whilst crime is very low in Abu Dhabi and it is a safe destination to visit, for the LGBTQ community, the reality is a lot different. Homosexuality is illegal here, so just like LGBTQ rights in Dubai, you run the risk of being arrested and/or deported if you get caught being open! Despite this, many LGBTQ expats (who are mainly 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 based on our first-hand experience. To be clear, we are not advocating Abu Dhabi as a gay haven, simply an honest account of what it was like for us.
Gay dating apps in Abu Dhabi
Gay dating apps such as Grindr or Scruff are illegal and blocked in Dubai. The best way to get around this (but still illegal), is to use a VPN which will give you full access to the dating apps and will allow you to surf the Net anonymously.
Gay rights in Abu Dhabi
Article 354 of the UAE Federal Penal Code is quite clear about being gay:
“Whoever commits ɾapҽ on a femaӀҽ or sօժօmყ with a male shall be punished by ɖeaէհ.”
Article 80 of the Abu Dhabi Penal Code makes sօժօmყ 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 adult websites cannot be accessed unless you use a VPN which is also illegal but the only solution if you wish to access those gay apps and websites.
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 Abu Dhabi safe for gay travellers?
It's a weird question to answer because, on the one hand, Abu Dhabi really is one of the safest places in the world, but only if you keep your sexuality a secret, behind closed doors! 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!
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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.
Here are a few practical safety precautions that gay travellers to Abu Dhabi should take into account:
- Avoid all 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
Landing in Abu Dhabi soon?
The only ways to get to the Abu Dhabi city centre from the airport is via public buses, taxi or a private airport transfer which is our personal pick. An English-speaking driver will meet you at the airport and even wait if your flight is delayed. Then you can travel straight to your hotel in comfort, without worrying about juggling your luggage while figuring out the public transport.
Gay friendly hotels in Abu Dhabi
When we travel to Iʂlamìc 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 book ourselves a room in one of the large international chains 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 is 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 when checking in!
Anantara Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort
Why we love it
- Kingdom-like fortress in the middle of the desert
- Located at in the “Empty Quarter” – the largest uninterrupted body of sand in the world
- Construction of Qasr Al Sarab took 3 years and 5,000 workers!
- Stay in a luxurious villa with private pool
That scene when Aladdin enters the massive palace to meet Jasmine's father? The Qasr Al is like that, but more!
Reminiscent of a Bedouin village, the Anantara Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort offers unparalleled luxury. The name Qasr Al Sarab even means “palace of mirage”. Construction of this mighty hotel took 3 years, 5,000 workers and around $245 million!
The resort has no fewer than 206 rooms, villas and suites. It's so big that you often need a buggy to get around.
The Qasr Al Sarah has 140 rooms, 14 suites and 52 pool villas to choose from on this vast 190,000-acre. They are all spacious, with private gardens and a balcony or terrace. The decor features subtle earth tones with contemporary Iʂlamìc-inspired furnishings. Another highlight is the large pool, surrounded by palm trees – not bad for a place right in the middle of the desert!
The resort has several dining options. Al Falaj is a Bedouin-style desert camp where you can dine under the stars. Suhail is a rooftop restaurant, great for lunch. Al Waha is where the breakfast is served, which is an expansive mix of Arabic specialities, eggs, noodles, cold cuts, cheeses, pastries and more.
Location wise, it's around 75 miles from Abu Dhabi Airport but worth the trip – it's famous for being one of the most Instagrammed hotels in the world! The activities on offer here are phenomenal, from camel trekking, long desert walks and falconry (ie watching the falcons hunt).
Anantara Eastern Mangroves Abu Dhabi
Why we love it
- An urban sanctuary set on a long stretch of protected mangroves
- Stunning sunsets every evening
- Arabesque opulence: grandiose building with dramatic Iʂlamìc style archways
- Luxurious Anantara Spa with impressive Turkish hammam
The Anantara is unique because it feels like you've been transported into a completely different world. It lies along a long stretch of protected mangroves islands.
Abu Dhabi has almost 75% of the country's 450 different species of birds, most of which reside in these mangroves. Birdwatchers will be in paradise here – highlights to look out for include the black wing stilt and the western reef heron.
Once inside, the Oriental and Arabian traditional architecture will completely captivate you – high ceilings decorated with ornate glistening chandeliers, cream furnishing, wooden paneling, rich fabrics for the furniture and tall clay pots. It's pretty impressive!
There are 222 rooms and suites to stay in. They all have balconies with views of either the city or the mangroves. The most opulent rooms are one of the three suites: the Kasara Mangroves Suite, the Anantara Mangroves Suite (with private plunge pool) and the Royal Mangroves Suite (with its own rooftop garden featuring an infinity pool with views over the mangroves and city). All 3 also have access to the Kasara Executive Lounge.
The hotel has a large pool facing the lagoon the mangroves, which is great place to hang out during the day. It also has a large gym and lavish spa with a large Hammam and an array of Arabian massage treatments.
Location wise, the Anantara is on the highway connecting Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It's around 15 minutes from the Abu Dhabi International Airport and roughly 2 hours to Dubai Airport. It takes around 10 minutes to reach the Abu Dhabi city centre and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Around the hotel, there are several restaurants and shisha cafes as well as a Waitrose supermarket!
The St. Regis Abu Dhabi
Why we love it
- Five-star hotel in a remarkable twin tower building on the Corniche Road
- Home to the best beach club in Abu Dhabi
- Hosts monthly sunset soirées on its helipad
- Stay in the world’s highest suspended hotel suite!
The St Regis Abu Dhabi is perfect if you want to be close to the city with a slice of private beach.
Upon entry you're met with grandeur! The lobby is a rich, palatial space with a dual staircase and glass-blown chandeliers. It's decorated with calligraphic artworks and Iʂlamìc geometric motifs.
Once you've taken this all in, your private butler receives you and takes you to your room. It's one of the things we love most about staying in a St Regis hotel – having your own 24-hour private butler service!
The rooms at the St Regis are classically decorated with chandeliers, luxurious linens and statement furnishings. We recommend upgrading to the Superior Seaview room for a sea view, or better: The Abu Dhabi Suite, which has its own entrance, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, two powder rooms and 360-degree views!
The Nation Riviera Beach Club is famous throughout the city and where most guests hang out throughout the day. It has its own private man-made beach and a massive pool with a hot tub. The St Regis also has a large gym to workout in and the Remede Spa for massage treatments. In terms of dining options, there are no fewer than seven bars and restaurants within the hotel building and several more in the adjoining mall.
The hotel is located right in the heart of the city on the Corniche Road, within walking distance of Emirates Palace and the capital’s new Founding Father Memorial. The airport is around 30 minutes drive away by taxi whilst the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Louvre Abu Dhabi are both a short taxi ride away.
Gay bars 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 cabin crew will be based here. Therefore, 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 of discovering the unofficial gay scene. Unfortunately, the UAE government monitors internet use and has banned most LGBTQ websites and gay dating apps. The solution is to get a VPN. However, you should be aware that VPNs are also illegal in the UAE. If you choose to get one, try this VPN service. We used it 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. These are the bars that we liked in Abu Dhabi where we felt more comfortable, largely because the crowd was young, international and therefore quite tolerant:
A particular favourite of ours, located on Level 62 of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. We love it because the cocktails are delicious and the views across the city are just jaw-droppingly stunning! Ray's is one of the more popular bars that the cabin crew boys like to hang out at. Also – cocktails here are just divine!
Ray's Bar is located at the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers and is open daily from 5pm to 3am.
We'll be honest, the name of the island caught our eye – Yas Island…yaaaaaas island…!
Mr Miyagi's is a quirky and super stylish restobar, perfect for brunch with some of the tastiest Asian food we tried in all of Abu Dhabi – as their slogan says – “You will go crazy pho us…you like good time? Udon know how much you’ll like us”…well we sure loved it here!
Mr Miyagi's is located on the Yas Marina on Yas Island. It is open every day except Mondays, from 6pm until 3am.
Gay clubs in Abu Dhabi
There are no official gay clubs in Abu Dhabi, for obvious reasons! We'll just bluntly get that one out the way before proceeding…however, there are unofficial “underground” gay events happening, usually at weekends, which are announced by word of mouth and the gay dating apps. For this reason, Grindr and Scruff (via a VPN) are your starting point in Abu Dhabi as you can use them to reach out and connect with gay locals/gay expats to find out more.
When we visited, MAD was the main queer-friendly nightclub we visited with our local gay friends:
Opulence darling, you own everything!
That's the theme at this large, trendy and super hip nightclub. It's not a gay club per se, but it was the place we partied at when we were in Abu Dhabi, even spotting several queer locals. Obviously be careful with PDA but if you're ok with that, this is quite an impressive place to check out – it's also Abu Dhabi's largest club.
MAD is located on Yas Island. Parties are on set dates – check the Events section of their Facebook page for the latest info.
Travelling with PrEP and AIDS medication to Abu Dhabi
The UAE has an extremely strict “No Tolerance” policy to dɾuցʂ. This means that what is legal back home may get you arrested when you arrive at Abu Dhabi airport if you do not declare it beforehand as one man found when he tried to enter carrying 6 month's supply of anti-anxiety medication. The most useful official information we've found about this is the UK Government's official advice for travel to the UAE.
Based on what other LGBTQ travellers have told us, as well as online forums discussing this issue, it appears that all that is required is for you to complete the UAE's online form and limit what you bring to up to 3 month's supply. However, please do NOT take our word for this, read your government's advice, and reach out to the UAE Ministry of Health for a more specific answer by emailing [email protected] or calling them on +971 800 11111.
Our favourite restaurants in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is a very modern and cosmopolitan city, so you can bet the dining scene is the same! We found so many delicious places to eat. We summarise some of our favourites her:
Filini Gardens is our favourite place in Abu Dhabi for delicious Italian food with gorgeous views. It is part of the Radisson Blu Yas Island Hotel. You can choose to sit inside surrounded by plants or outside to enjoy the views. They have some super tasty authentic Italian dishes like bruschetta, risotto, pizza and pasta. It's also a great spot on the weekends for parties and drinks when a resident DJ plays some tunes. You'll definitely spot other gays here on the weekend having a good time.
For a lazy day in the sun chilling by the pool with a cocktail to hand a ravishing selection food to try, we recommend the luxurious Saadiyat Beach Club. They are famous for their parties so keep an eye on the Events section of their Facebook page for the latest info. The buffet at the Saadiya Beach Club is a treat and a half. The food is excellent quality (despite being a buffet!) with a choice oysters to BBQ to beef Wellington…absolutely epic!
From Italian cuisine at Filini Gardens to French fare at Le Beaujolais, we did tell you Abu Dhabi had a cosmopolitan dining scene! Le Beaujolais is one of the best French restaurants in the whole city with a ‘typical French bistro' feel and dishes that even my fussy Frenchman approved of. The restaurant is located inside the slightly tired looking Novel Hotel City Center, but the exquisite French cuisine will definitely wake you up. Here you can dine on escargot, traditional French onion soup, gulf shrimp veloute and raspberry crème brûlée – YUM!
Top things to do in Abu Dhabi
There's plenty of historic, fun and exciting things to do in Abu Dhabi, so we suggest spending at least a couple of days exploring the city. From city-slicking to camel rides through the desert, you definitely won't get bored. These are some of our favourite things to do in Abu Dhabi to inspire you with your travel planning:
Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The most famous building in Abu Dhabi is the incredible Sheik Zayed Grande Mosque. This stunning structure is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates, which also houses both the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world and one of the largest crystal chandeliers in the world! This beautiful building takes inspiration from Persian, Mughal and Moorish architecture. You can join tours of the Mosque to learn more about Islam or visit it as part of an Abu Dhabi city tour.
Skyline of Abu Dhabi
While Dubai might have some of the world's tallest buildings, the skyline of Abu Dhabi is just as fascinating, with some of the craziest looking skyscrapers we've ever seen! From the pineapple-looking Al Bahr Towers to the completely round Aldar headquarters building, wandering around Abu Dhabi will certainly have you scratching your head in some places and gasping with wonder in others. The Etihad Towers are also home to an observation deck where you can see the whole city from above.
Evening desert safari with dinner under the stars
While you're in Abu Dhabi you've GOT to experience a desert safari, preferably one that includes a romantic dinner under the stars. While we were careful to keep the PDAs to a minimum I still felt like Princess Jasmine being wooed by my handsome French Aladdin while we rode camels on the dunes and then dined alfresco. The BBQ dinner is served at a traditional Arabic camp, with live entertainment plus the opportunity to try shisha smoking pipes, Arabic coffee and dates.
See Abu Dhabi on a speedboat
If you think Abu Dhabi is only about the desert then you'd be wrong, as it also offers plenty of fun in the waters of the Persian Gulf. We mentioned the cool skyline before, and a really fun way to experience it from a different perspective is by going on a speedboat tour! It's quite breathtaking to see the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi Corniche and other impressive sights from the water. It's also a nice way to escape the heat, speeding along on the eco-friendly yellow speedboats.
Plan your trip
We've put together some handy hints and tips to help you plan your own trip to Abu Dhabi. Read on to find out everything the gay traveller should know before they go.
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How to Stay Safe Whilst Traveling?
As gay travelers, safety is our #1 priority! This is why we've put together our Ultimate Travel Safety Checklist for LGBTQ travelers.
How to get there: You can fly directly into Abu Dhabi's international airport from more than 60 countries. You can only get from the airport to the city via public buses (which are cheap but take up to an hour), taxi or private airport transfer. We always like to book a private airport transfer with Welcome Pickups as they provide professional English-speaking drivers who will greet you at the airport and wait if your flight is delayed.
Visa requirements: Travellers from most nationalities can visit Abu Dhabi (and the rest of the United Arab Emirates) and get a visa-on-arrival, provided they also have a valid passport and proof of onward travel. Make sure you check your personal visa requirements and book a round or ongoing trip before heading to Abu Dhabi.
Online privacy: The internet is heavily monitored across the UAE. Many LGBTQ apps and websites are blocked by the government, including Grindr and Scruff. If you want to be able to use gay dating apps and browse the internet without any issues, we recommend using a reliable VPN connection. It will allow you to browse the internet anonymously.
Getting around: You can explore Abu Dhabi by taxi, bus or walking – although be sure to use plenty of sunscreen and bring lots of water as it does get very hot! Here's a detailed guide on public transport in Abu Dhabi.
Power Plugs: The United Arab Emirates uses the 3-pin plug found in the UK. For traveller from Europe and the US, we recommend buying a travel adaptor.
Travel insurance: It's a must! We always recommend taking out travel insurance before a trip to ensure you're covered if anything goes wrong, from stolen luggage, cancelled flights or medical bills. We've been using World Nomads travel insurance for years and can't recommend them highly enough. Their cover is comprehensive, affordable and it's easy to make an online claim if you need to.
Vaccinations: All travellers to Abu Dhabi should be up to date with routine vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox etc. It's also recommended that you get vaccinated for hepatitis A and typhoid, along with hepatitis B, yellow fever and rabies, depending on where you will be/what you will be doing. Speak to your doctor before organising your travel and keep up to date with vaccination requirements for the UAE here.
Currency: in Abu Dhabi they use the dirham, which is abbreviated to AED. $1 is around 3.67 AED, €1 is around 4.13 AED and £1 is around 4.61 AED.
Tipping culture: Tipping is not expected in Abu Dhabi but won't go unappreciated. Gratuities to hotel and restaurant staff are at your discretion, but most restaurants will add a service charge of around 10% to your bill.
Internet access: Free, fast WiFi can be found in most places in Abu Dhabi. If you need to stay connected 24/7 then we recommend purchasing a local SIM card upon arrival at Abu Dhabi international aiport.
Accommodation: We love using Booking.com to research and book hotels. They have a comprehensive list of places, the best online deals and usually offer cancellation for most listings.
Sightseeing and adventure: For more inspiration for the best things to do, we recommend checking out GetYourGuide. We love it because they always have a comprehensive list of experiences to inspire us and booking them is super easy.
When to visit: Abu Dhabi is a destination you can visit all-year round. It's always hot and humid! However, you may want to avoid July/August, when the average temperature is almost 40°C (104°F). By comparison, the “coldest” month is January, which has an average maximum temperature of 24°C (75°F).
Gay map of Abu Dhabi
This is our gay map of Abu Dhabi to show you where everything we've mentioned in this article is located. Use it to find out where all the best gay friendly hotels, bars and activities are for your own visit to Abu Dhabi!
For more inspiration:
- If you're heading there too, check out these gay friendly hotels in Dubai
- These are what we think are the most gay friendly Arab countries
- While these are the most gay friendly countries in the world
- For more LGBTQ love, check out what we think are the best Pride events in the world
- Get inspired with these awesome gay Pride outfit ideas
- And make sure you pack these must-have gay Pride accessories too
- Another fascinating country with dubious LGBTQ laws is gay Iran
- We've also written a gay travel guide to Lebanon