With so many nationalities in Dubai, there is a wide variety of different habits, customs and traditions. Most people behave as they would back in their home country but extend tolerance toward, and have respect for, the norms and expectations held by others.
For the local Emirati population, culture and tradition are very important. Their habits and customs come from their strong religious beliefs as well as from their tribal roots. Despite the rapid modernization of the country, they have prioritized keeping their national identity alive.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Emirati culture is the importance of family, which are typically large and close-knit. This is the basis for a very strong sense of community. Even today, men and women do not mix. Even within the family groups, women spend most of their time with other women and men with other men.
One of the most striking things about the local community is their national dress. It is worn in daily life and is an important part of local people’s identity. Men wear long robes which are almost always made from seemingly impractical white cloth. These robes are known as dishdash or kandura. On their heads, they wear a piece of cloth called a ghutra. This is often topped with a round piece of black rope made out of wool, cotton, silk or, traditionally, camel hair. This is known as an igal.
Female Emiratis usually wear a black cloak-like gown over their other clothes. This is called an abaya. On their heads, they usually wear a headscarf which is called a sheyla. Until recently, sheylas were always black and the abaya loose-fitting and unadorned with any decoration. However, this has changed and modern Emiratis wear fashionably cut abayas, decorated with sequins, ribbons and embroidery. Their sheylas come in a variety of colors, patterns and designs. Traditionally, Emirati women would wear brightly colored dresses under their abayas. However, today they are more likely to be wearing Western clothes instead. This dress is as much cultural as it is religious. According to Islam, women should cover themselves and dress discretely in a way which will not attract attention from the opposite sex. This is interpreted in a variety of different ways. There are many non-Emirati Muslim women in Dubai who choose to dress conservatively and modestly but who do not wear a black abaya or sheyla.
Muslims pray five times a day and most Muslim men in Dubai try to pray at the mosque as much as possible. This is especially true of the Friday morning prayer where mosques will be packed to capacity, with the faithful often spilling out into the surrounding streets. At busy times, they may pray on the sidewalks and even in the road. It is important to try and avoid walking in front of someone while they are praying. Parking seems to be a free-for-all at this time with parked cars sometimes blocking side streets. Most non-Muslims put off going outside until the prayer time is over.
Things not to do in Dubai
It’s easy to feel that being in Dubai is like being in the West, as the cityscape is typical of one you would find there. Familiar shops sell familiar products in ultra-modern shopping malls. Everyone speaks English, the radio plays English songs and the cinemas show the latest Hollywood blockbusters in their original English. There is an active nightlife to rival that of many other modern cities. And yet, this is a Muslim country. The laws here are not the same as those back home. Most of the time the police will turn a blind eye to crimes committed by Western expats, but if it is done too publicly or someone complains, the punishments can be severe, including imprisonment and deportation.
Sex outside marriage
This is illegal in all situations and if you are caught, you could end up in prison before being deported. This also means that extra-marital affairs, becoming pregnant when you are not married and homosexuality can all result in imprisonment. Such cases can and do happen, often making headline news in newspapers around the world.
Non-Muslims are allowed to drink in Dubai. However, there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving. It is also illegal to drink or be drunk in public. Serving or giving alcohol to Muslims is also a punishable offense.
There is zero tolerance for the possession of illegal drugs. This can also include medicines which are available across the counter in other countries. If you are bringing medicine into the country, make sure you check that it is considered legal and always carry a doctor’s prescription if it is on the banned list. For more information, see the information about pharmacies in the ‘Medical Facilities/Health Insurance’ section.
Non-Muslims are not expected to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. However, it is illegal to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public during daylight hours.
Hand gestures and swearing
It is illegal to make obscene hand gestures or swear, whatever the provocation. If the recipient decides to press charges, this can lead to imprisonment and deportation.
There are also many things which are frowned upon. They may be acceptable in areas where Western expats predominate or in luxury five-star hotels, but they will not be looked kindly upon in other areas.
Both men and women should wear modest clothing. Signs in malls now warn visitors to ‘wear respectful clothing’, accompanied by a picture or a short-sleeved t-shirt. Sleeveless t-shirts, very short shorts and mini-skirts for women may cause offense.
Many local people will strongly object to having their photographs taken. Be careful you are not accidentally including people in your photograph. As with other countries, airports, government buildings, military and industrial sites are also off-limits.
Public displays of affection
There is a thin line between whether this will simply cause offense or land you in prison. A simple peck on the cheek has been known to end in a prison sentence and deportation. As with all things, it is probably better to err on the side of caution.
Many Muslim men and women in the UAE do not shake hands with people of the opposite sex. To avoid embarrassment, wait for the other person to extend their hand first.