Dubai is a great tourist magnet. The architecture, the weather (well, some of the time, at least), the shopping, the promise of a fabulous life-style: all these contribute to the image of Dubai being a great place to visit and spend time in.
There are a few things, however, that have the potential to get you into trouble, even on a comparatively short visit. We’ll look at seven of the most likely behaviors or situations where there is room for misunderstandings to arise, some of which are plain, emphatic “Don’t dos!”
Remember you’re not in Kansas, Toto!
Indeed not – you’re a guest in someone else’s country and culture. Watch, listen, and learn. If you’re of the “West is best, East is least” persuasion, stay home, because no meeting of minds or learning about the diversity of humanity will take place.
Take care how you dress in public
In Dubai, be careful how you dress: it isn’t Saudi Arabia, but Dubai and all the other Emirates of the UAE have a dress code. No, you’re not in Riyadh or Tehran: women don’t have to cover themselves in black, but you’re not in Benedorm or Marbella either.
So what can you wear? There are plenty of sites that will give you all the guidance you need, but Expatwoman.com has a nice succinct summary of the don’ts and dos of dressing in Dubai here.
It applies more to women’s clothes than men’s, but super revealing short shorts and tank tops on guys aren’t a good look in the Dubai Mall either.
Don’t appear obviously intoxicated in public
For its liberal and relaxed vibe, Dubai is an Islamic Emirate and the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. There is however, a modus vivendi, an unspoken truce which satisfies both sides: you can buy alcohol in your hotels, or you can go to hotels and bars in Dubai and you will be served alcohol.
Keep it seemly and you are unlikely to have any problems. Draw attention to yourself in an inebriated state publicly, and you will attract the full force of the law. Jail, a hefty fine, and almost certain deportation are the likely consequences.
Cases (which make international news) of young holidaymakers being arrested for offences involving public drunkenness get very little sympathy from the resident expat community.
The offenders would have been warned, but they went ahead and disregarded the advice, so they face the consequences.
Watch your language and gestures.
In other words, no cussing and sit on your hands if you’re angry. The “bad words” of English have become very well known, thanks to the movies, television, and the Internet. They are quite recognizable even to people who have a very poor command of English. If reported to authorities, you may be in trouble.
On the roads, a gesture of frustration or anger at a thoughtless or dangerous piece of driving can also land you in trouble. Two cases I have personal knowledge of involved long hours at a Dubai Police Station, before being resolved with, in one case, mutual apologies over “the misunderstanding.”
In the other – a very humiliating and abject admission of guilt (when it was probably the other party’s fault) to avoid the matter being taken further.
Sometimes, cases like this do end up in court: the proceedings will be in Arabic and you will need to engage a lawyer who is familiar with both the language and the local jurisprudence.
Whatever the outcome, it will be time-consuming and expensive.
No public consumption of food or drink during Ramadan.
During the month of Ramadan, all Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset: that means total abstention from all food and drink for close to sixteen hours during the summer months.
Non-Muslims are not required to observe Ramadan food and drink restrictions, but nor are they allowed to eat and drink publicly during the sunrise-sunset hours of fasting. So we have the strange (to outsiders) situation where most food outlets are closed, but some are open.
The food purchased must be discreetly taken away and consumed out of sight. Some restaurants will have the windows taped up with paper – a sign that food can be purchased and eaten on the premises, as it is not “on public view.”
But I’m afraid that water bottles in the malls will be frowned on and openly drinking may even attract the attention of mall security or the police. You are unlikely to be arrested, but expect to be spoken to pretty brusquely. Even publically chewing gum can cause offense.
The BBC’s website has a simple but comprehensive guide to Ramadan etiquette here.
Religion, politics, and sex are best not discussed
That’s probably good advice anywhere in the world where you’re a visitor in someone else’s country and culture. Dubai’s Emirati Muslim population will show tolerance towards whatever your beliefs are – you can go to church in Dubai if you are a Christian – but you’re expected to offer the same tolerance towards their beliefs.
If you are interested, there are mosques in Dubai that welcome visits from non-Muslims, but I can’t really see the Pope visiting Dubai any time soon, although he could be made very welcome.
Dubai and the other Emirates are not democracies, following the models of western democracies. Resist the urge to point out how superior “our” system is. Remember that the evolution of our own political institutions is far from complete.
Don’t be tempted to get touchy/feely with the opposite sex in public
Dubai’s customs and traditions are their own. You’ll see young Emirati men looking like L.A. “boyz in the ’hood,” and others in those lovely stark traditional white kandooras and Arabic headgear.
You’ll see a few Emirati women fully covered in black, the majority wearing the long, black over garment, the abaya and the headcover, the shayla loosely, but stylishly draped over the head, and you’ll even see some young rebels with their heads uncovered.
As a casual, short-term visitor, it’s unlikely you’ll have any contact with these “locals,” unless they are employed in some capacity in a mall, for example. For women visitors, initiating contact with groups of Emirati women is OK. For men, it’s not! It’s that simple.
Similarly, overt displays of public affection are frowned on. You’ll see some younger Emirati husbands holding hands with their wives in public, but it’s still relatively rare. What about amongst non-Emiratis? Well, local rules rule.
Take the time to watch, listen, and learn and you’ll soon get a pretty good idea of what is OK in Dubai and what almost certainly isn’t.