How to behave in Dubai

Burj Kalifa

No need to go overboard but a dress code is essential in Dubai. A few etiquette lessons wouldn’t go amiss, coz the UAE rules, OK? With the Qantas-Emirates partnership it’s a whole different ballgame. More Australians are flying over Singapore and stopping in the Gulf instead. There’s a lot to learn about how to behave in Dubai. Despite the super-sized ubiquitous shopping malls, which look like they could be in the West, this is a conservative Middle Eastern country.

A view of Al Qasr, Dubai
Al Qasr with the distinctive Burj Al Arab like a billowing sail

Dubai is more relaxed than other UAE states, but fooling around in Dubai – sex on the beach and public drunkenness – will only end in tears and jail. A little respect goes a long way.

Buying scarves in Dubai (2)
Buy a scarf to drape elegantly over your shoulders


Dubai dress code for women:

  • No tight-fitting or transparent garments in public
  • No low-cut dresses
  • Try and avoid sleeveless garments – a bit hard when it’s so hot most of the time
  • No dresses or skirts above the knee
  • If you’re visiting a mosque, take a scarf
  • Leggings are not pants unless you’re wearing a tunic to cover your butt
  • Swimmers are fine at hotel pools and private beaches, but try to stick to a one piece
  • Otherwise, it’s all good so chill!

Dress code for men:

  • No shorts
  • Tuck that beer belly into a shirt right now. This isn’t Bali
  • No singlets or shirts unbuttoned to show hairy chests.

Du and don’t:

  • Don’t pash your significant other in public. A peck on the cheek is OK
  • Don’t hold hands or hug in public
  • Manners are appreciated and reciprocated
  • Don’t be overly familiar with Dubai women who are unlikely to shake hands or make eye contact, unless they’re in the hotel/hospitality industry. It’s not unfriendly, it’s just the way Islamic things are
  • Don’t even think about taking a six-pack of beer to the beach, you idiot
  • Do be gracious about tipping the cabbie a few extra dirhams and expect to pay 10-15 per cent gratuity at restaurants
  • Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims holds utmost importance in Dubai. The festival which takes place during the ninth month of Islamic calendar, is regarded as the Five Pillars of Islam. Dates aren’t fixed as it is dependent upon the sighting of the new moon. Guests and tourists as a sign of regard are also expected to abstain from alcohol, dancing, chewing gum, smoking and singing in public places during the day. This is obligatory according to Dubai law
  • They look so cool, swishing around in their black (women) or white (men) robes, but ask permission before taking photographs
  • If a Muslim is praying, don’t walk in front of him or stare.

If you flout the rules:

  • A British couple spent a month in jail for kissing in public
  • Another British couple were jailed and then deported for having sex at night on a beach.

Now let’s unveil the fun stuff


Dune bashing in Dubai

Emiratis as well as visitors like to whizz up the 828-metre, 160-storey tower Burj Kalifa (top photo) to the observation deck. 125 dirhams a ticket for adults, 95 dirhams for children. Emiratis only account to up to 20 per cent of a population dominated by Asian migrant workers, Western expats and sun-seeking tourists, by the way. Getting more than a glimpse of locals is rare, although they do like conspicuous retail consumption. You’ll have a bit of an opportunity to meet and greet on a sunset desert dune-bashing desert trek excursion, which includes a visit to a Bedouin camp at an oasis desert camp about 1 hour from Dubai. OK, so it’s set up for tourists, other Arab nationals and Pakistanis run the show and drive the 4WDs, but it’s still atmospheric and the desert air is magical. Every hotel has details.

Sunset camel trek Dubai
Camel riding at sunset is part of the excursion

You’ll find the working drones of this beehive metropolis more visible than locals. Dubai is an ongoing construction site, like neighbouring Doha and Abu Dhabi. Dawn and dusk, weary migrant workers in their overalls and hard hats are slumped asleep in buses or squatting on the side of the road waiting to be transported to a building site or back to their quarters. They build the skyscrapers, and the manmade beaches where you lounge and try to chill out in the heat for, oh, a few minutes at best in mid-summer.

Dubai beach

Yes, you can drink, in designated places. Foreign hookers ply their trade oh-so blatantly even in classy bars. For a country that doesn’t like it all to hang out, it’s an amusing contrast.

Dubai bar
Dubai is famous for retail therapy, and Emiratis love to shop. From gold souks to Marks & Spencer to Louis Vuitton, it’s all there. From 10am to midnight. Every day. If that’s your thing. And there’s a lot of things to buy. Friday is the first day of the weekend, so some shops outside of the malls may open later in the morning.

Dubai mall interior

The best thing I like about Dubai shopping centres (which migrant labour built) is rows of sacks bulging with intensely aromatic spices in supermarket Carrefour. I guess Louis Vuitton doesn’t do it for me. But when the temperature tops 40 deg C, even the contents of malls start to look attractive to a non-maller. You can even go skiing to cool off. Gloves, headwear and gear are available at the ski shop facing the entrance of the indoors snow zone at the Mall of Emirates. Popular with big kids and small. I don’t want to think about the energy bill.

How some Dubai locals have a cuppa
Tea for two – part of the display of traditional life for the sunset desert excursion

I like to cross the Creek for a dirham or two on the ferries crossing every couple of minutes, so I can go to the Old Town to explore traditional souks. I fuel up with a good meze first (get with the program). The best bargains in Dubai are on that side of the Creek, but you have to work the territory.

Crossing the creek in Dubai

Bulging sacks of spices in Carrefour
Sacks of pulses and a wall of spices in Dubai's Old Town
Pulses and a wall of spices in Dubai’s Old Town

Shops are mainly run by Indians and Pakistanis. I once haggled so hard for a wrap in fine black wool with intricate white Kashmiri embroidery I’m sure the shopkeeper will never allow me back in his store. The price started at 600 dirhams ($A185) and I walked away with the wrap around my shoulders for 220 ($68). I could feel his hostile glare on my back as I departed. The shawl remains my key Dubai dress code piece. If that makes me a bargain bitch, so be it. I’m sure others would have paid full price.

Exploring Dubai's old Souk where silks, spices and scarves are wall to wall
Dubai’s Old Souk where silks, gold, spices and scarves are wall to wall

The spice souk is wall to wall heaven for foodies, but find out first what you can take home with you – quarantine restrictions may apply.


The Jumeirah Mosque is open for tours at 10am most days to curious foreigners for a basic, light-hearted lesson on what Islam is all about. Abdullah (pictured below) will be your host and his sense of humour is as dry as the Sahara. Cost: A donation of 20 dirhams.

Abdullah at the Jumeirah Mosque explains the pre-prayer washing ritual
Abdullah explains the pre-prayer washing ritual

You might like to read:

My post on best things to do in Dubai on a budget

Read our agony aunt Sally Slaughter’s take on what happens if you don’t behave:

*Images of Burj Kalifa, Al Qasr, and camel trek courtesy of TravMedia. All other images Copyright Taste for Travel.

6 thoughts on “How to behave in Dubai

  1. Thanks for writing a SENSIBLE account of social and dress codes for visitors to Dubai. Western media can be melodramatic and a bit silly. Your humor is also appreciated. We are all human and like to laugh at ourselves sometimes. It puts serious subjects in a more genial perspective. We wish you a happy next visit to the UAE.


  2. A lot of people are showing interest in this blog post – noting the comments on Facebook include peeps who don’t like to go outside their comfort zones and probably wouldn’t like to visit here for that reason. Each to their own. For those who do get here, it’s an interesting destination on many levels.


  3. I’ve been to Abu Dhabi and saw women wearing sleeveless dresses. No-one arrested them or looked offended. A little common sense goes a long way on both sides.


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