Emiratis are welcoming and have opened up their country to the world. Whether visiting Dubai or living in the city at an expatriate, you’ll quickly see that it is an international community. The shopping malls and souks carry styles from all over the world, from Western designer clothing, to Indian saris. You’ll witness the intersection of style as east meets west.
When outside the home, Emirati women dress in abaya (a long black robe), cover their hair with a sheyla (scarf), and sometimes wear the niqab (full face covering, exposing only the eyes). Local men dress in the white dishdash, with a white gutrah (headscarf) held in place by a black band, called an agal.
You may find yourself wanting to photograph the locals. Please do not do so without asking for permission, and avoid asking women who are covered (it would be best to approach a family member).
Emiratis do not expect people from other cultures to wear their traditional dress. Women of any nationality can wear the abaya, but just Emirati men wear the dishdash. You may be regarded as quite strange if you try to pull off local dress without considering form and fit.
Emiratis do expect people to dress respectfully in public. Fortunately, avoiding offense is easy when it comes to Dubai if you consider these guidelines.
What to Avoid Wearing in Dubai’s Malls
Short shorts (shorts ending just above the knee are acceptable)
Exposure of midriff and back (men and women)
Sheer clothing, especially when worn over swimsuits
Excessively tight clothing (men and women)
Tank tops and sleeveless shirts (men and women)
Excessively plunging necklines
Although many of Dubai’s malls are located in close proximity to hotels and beaches, it is not acceptable to wear swimwear, short shorts and teensy tank tops into the mall. Besides that, the air conditioning is set so high in malls that you’ll feel you’ve moved into an Arctic environment. For this reason, it is useful to carry a light sweater or scarf with you so that you can easily cover up.
So what is considered “respectful” clothing? A good rule of thumb is to dress with the knees and elbows covered. Malls have signs posted outside, requesting that shoppers wear appropriate clothing and not engage in public displays of affection.
Security guards rarely approach mall visitors with regards to inappropriate dress. However, you will find yourself on the receiving end of disapproving glances and outright stares from other shoppers if you do not adhere to these guidelines.
Avoid Dressing Too Casually in the Workplace
Professional dress includes suit and tie for men, and a business suit or skirt, plus business jacket for women. For women, skirts should reach the knee, and sleeveless tops ought to be worn with a jacket. For men, dress shirts are the norm. Closed toe shoes are appropriate for both men and women.
The way that you dress in the workplace reflects on your employer. You’ll be working with people from many nationalities, and it is a sign of respect to wear business-like attire. This may be in marked contrast to the West, where casual days are the norm. Flip-flops, light sandals and similar footwear are to be avoided at the workplace. Take a look at what others around you are wearing, and consult your employer’s handbook.
What to Wear for a Night Out
The dress code at hotels (where most restaurants and nightclubs are located) is relaxed. Five-star restaurants expect their guests to arrive in smart dress — and that means no flip-flops, shorts or tank tops. Some clubs and restaurants ask that men wear trousers, and not jeans. It really depends on the venue, and you’ll find that many of Dubai’s A-list folk prefer to dress fashionably.
Within hotel nightclubs and restaurants, short skirts, sleeveless dresses and sheer material on women are acceptable. Nightclubs usually have security at the door to check that patrons are dressed appropriately.
Emirati women are a stylish bunch. If you are invited to a wedding, then you’re in for a treat. Be sure to study up on Emirati wedding etiquette, as it is an honor to be invited to such an event. An Emirati wedding is often held at a large venue such as a hotel, and there are separate halls for the men and the women.
Once inside the women’s hall, you’ll see that the women have prepared for the event by dressing in lavish gowns and have had their hair and make-up done professionally. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to such an event, bring your best party dress and look forward to the evening, which will likely last until the early hours.
What to Wear in a Mosque
You may plan a visit to a mosque, such as the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which opens its doors for tourists every day except Friday. When entering a mosque, women must cover their hair with a scarf, and wear loose fitting clothing that covers all of the arms and legs. Men should wear long trousers.
If you visit Dubai during the Holy Month of Ramadan, dress conservatively when in public areas such as malls, parks and outdoor venues. This is a holy month observed by all Muslims. Women should ensure their shoulders and upper arms are covered, and should wear trousers or skirts reaching below the knees. Men shouldn’t wear shorts and tank tops in public.
Within hotels, guests can dress in casual clothing and beachwear. Tourists are not expected to cover up on the beach, but it is expected that guests use some discretion. Topless sunbathing is not allowed in Dubai. Thong bikinis (for men and women) will be met with some disapproval, and the hotel may ask that you change to a full coverage bathing suit option.
There are plenty of spas and saunas to sample in Dubai. There will be signage in the hotel and spa changing rooms advising that full nudity is prohibited. Please respect this request and use the changing stalls provided in hotel spas and saunas.
Tattoos and Body Piercings
Plenty of tourists and expatriate residents in Dubai have tattoos. Ear and nose piercings are common, but less common are multiple piercings or those in the lips and eyebrows. In the workplace, it is best to cover up tattoos and take out piercings, especially men.
With common sense and some sensitivity to the local culture and religion, it is easy to avoid dress code mistakes in Dubai. If in doubt, err towards the conservative side, but keep in mind that the city is generally a tolerant place to live and work.