I love Dubai. It's a fascinating city but the local customs can sometimes trip up Western tourists.
Before moving to Dubai, it’s important that expats take the time to understand Dubai’s culture and customs. As well as helping them to integrate more readily on a practical level, such an approach will help reduce the risk of culture shock and give the expat a richer appreciation for their new home.
Expats moving from Western countries like the UK or France may find the culture in Dubai vastly different to the one they’re used to. To help expats integrate and settle, there are less obvious things they may want to consider that are sure to help them adjust. For example, knowing how to dress with respect to the host country’s culture could be extremely important for expats to consider.
This can be especially true for countries in the Middle East like Dubai where views and opinions about clothing can differ greatly to the attitudes held in Western countries. Some Muslim countries, for instance, forbid certain types of revealing clothing, either at certain times, in certain places or altogether.
For instance, during the holy month of Ramadan, which usually begins around May and ends in June but varies from year to year, local laws and customs, including dress codes are strictly enforced. This is why expats need to ensure they are dressed appropriately, covering their knees, shoulders, and chest.
Even though there are no laws against wearing revealing clothing like shorts, miniskirts, and tank tops in Dubai, women should consider wearing respectable clothing such as knee-length skirts or trousers and tops that covers the shoulders and midriff.
Dubai is considered to be more liberal than other UAE countries because they are not as strict about clothing compared to other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, all women, including expats, are legally required to wear an abaya – a light-weight, loose-fitting robe worn to conceal the everyday clothes and figure beneath – when they are out in public (although this may not apply to public areas inside private and enclosed expat compounds).
Dubai law doesn’t require or expect expats or tourists to wear traditional Islamic clothing, even so, expats should abide by their conservative sense of dress to show respect and avoid causing any offence (even if it were unintended).
To gain a deeper understanding of the country’s culture and traditions, it can be a good idea for expats to do some research and see for themselves what types of clothing Muslim men and women wear in Dubai.
Although it is not common in Dubai, some women choose to wear the burqa which covers the entire face, neck, hair, shoulders, and body – not even the eyes are visible. This type of Islamic clothing is more commonly worn by older women rather than young women. Many Muslim women cover their hair with headscarves which can include the hijab which only covers the hair, leaving the face visible. Some women wear the niqab which covers the hair, forehead, nose, and mouth, leaving only the eyes visible.
Adopting local customs and figuring out what is deemed as acceptable clothing and what is regarded as offensive, can help women and their families moving to Dubai adjust and integrate. To show respect and to help female expats integrate, women should opt for skirts and dresses which fall below the knee. T-shirts and light jackets which cover the shoulders are also ideal for expat women. Cleavage should also be covered as much as possible and clothing that is too tight or see-through should be avoided.
In Dubai, many Muslim men wear a long white robe known as the thobe, over an undershirt and a pair of trousers. Some men also wear the ghutra, which is a white or red and white checkered head scarf, held in place with a cord-like circle, known as the agal. Male expats and tourists are not expected to wear these traditional types of clothing, but they are required to dress as modestly as possible by covering the shoulders and knees.
It’s important to note that these dress codes apply to all public places including malls, markets, cinemas, on the street, in the car, supermarkets, public areas of hotels and more.
In Dubai, the law is more relaxed with swimwear permitted on public beaches compared to countries like Qatar for instance, which requires men and women to cover up on public beaches. With a more relaxed approach to the rules, Dubai is considered as being one of the most tolerant countries in the Middle East. Even so, it is important expats dress conservatively and modestly to show respect towards Dubai’s culture and customs.
For women, bikinis are perfectly acceptable swimwear for public beaches, but sunbathing topless is not permitted on public or private beaches. Women should cover up before leaving public or private beaches because it is disrespectful to walk the streets and visit public spaces in swimwear.
Men don’t have to cover their chests on the beach and can wear swimwear including shorts and even Speedos if they wish! But note that bare chests are not allowed in public spaces which is why men should change into their clothes before leaving the beach.
Traditional and religious wear
When visiting a mosque in Dubai, women are expected to wear long sleeved tops to cover their shoulders and arms, loose clothing, and full-length trousers, skirts, or dresses to cover their knees and legs. Women are also expected to cover their hair which is why it can be a good idea for female expats to keep a headscarf with them. If expats aren’t dressed appropriately, they’ll usually be provided with a long black gown and black headscarf to wear.
Men are not required to cover their hair when entering a mosque, but they are expected to cover their shoulders, knees, and chests which is why trousers and t-shirts or long-sleeved tops should be worn.
Formal and evening wear
Many locals dress up when they go out to eat in the evenings, giving expats more freedom to wear Western-style clothes. For example, in some restaurants, expats aren’t required to cover their shoulders, but it can be a good idea for expats to take a pashmina or scarf with them to cover up before leaving the restaurant. Plus, having a wrap-around can come in handy because most restaurants and indoor areas have air conditioning and it can get quite cool.
In many bars and clubs, tourists and expats are free to wear more Western-style clothing as long as they cover up their shoulders and knees before leaving the bar or club and entering public spaces.
As an Islamic country, it’s important expats respect and abide by Dubai’s modest sense of clothing, and because they are a more liberal country than other UAE countries, expats are not expected to wear traditional Muslim clothing including abayas, hijabs, thobes, and ghutras.
Looking to locals will help expats decide which type of clothing is appropriate for them (as a male or female) and the occasion. If in doubt, dress more formally than informally and cover more of the skin than less.
Daniel is an avid traveller and love to explore new things on his own. This time he explored Dubai’s culture and customs.