Confusion over what is acceptable attire for men and women in Dubai results in many, often, slightly panicked, questions on travel forums: ‘Help! I’m going to Dubai, what should I wear?’ ‘Do I need to cover my head?’ ‘Can I wear a bikini on the beach?’ ‘Can I wear shorts to a mall?’ This simple guide tells you what’s acceptable and what’s best avoided.
Dubai is the best known, and most tolerant, of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. It receives millions of tourists every year but it’s still a part of a Muslim country and there are some simple guidelines to follow if you want to be respectful of local Emirati culture and tradition while still making the most of this unique destination.
By The Pool, At the Beach or Around your Hotel
It’s perfectly acceptable to wear swimming trunks, bikinis or one piece swimsuits on the beach or by the hotel pool; but it’s disrespectful to walk the streets in a bikini or in shorts and a bikini top. Gentlemen may admirably fill out their Speedos but keep them for the beach too. It is illegal for women to sunbath topless. Thong bikini bottoms are disrespectful and likely to attract a crowd of appreciative construction workers if you wear them on the beach. If you wouldn’t wear your beach outfit to your local supermarket back home to do your weekly shopping, then it’s most probably not a good idea to wear it outside of your hotel in Dubai.
Bear in mind, also, that many of the other tourists in your hotel may be families from neighbouring, more conservative, Gulf countries and to avoid making them uncomfortable you may want to cover up when you walk through the hotel to get to the pool or beach. There may also be local Emiratis in your hotel as hotels form a big part of the social scene in Dubai.
In the Streets, Souks or at the Mall
When out and about in the streets, souks or shopping malls women are most respectful if they wear skirts or shorts to the knee and have their shoulders covered. The air conditioning in the malls can be fierce and you may find a wrap, light cardigan or pashmina comes in handy. A comfortable outfit, suitable for the culture and the harsh a/c might be ¾ length Capri pants, a strappy top and a loose, open shirt.
Men are fine to wear shorts to the knee; t-shirts are more respectful than skimpy muscle vests no matter how much you want to show off your fine physique.
The gold, spice and textile souks are in the old part of Dubai, in Bur Dubai and Deira. These areas have a high South Asian population and it’s advisable for women to dress conservatively here to help avoid stares.
On a Desert Safari
You won’t meet any Emiratis on a desert safari so both men and women can wear almost anything they feel comfortable in: short shorts and a strappy top or vest tops for the men are all fine. In the winter months a jacket or sweater will be useful; in summer, the desert nights are hot but more comfortable than the city because of the much lower humidity.
At the Mosque
Very few mosques in the UAE admit non-Muslims but if you decide to visit one of those which do then, as with any place of worship, it’s important to dress appropriately. Long trousers and long sleeved tops or shirts for men; long trousers or ankle length skirts/dresses for women combined with a long sleeved top which is not low cut. Easiest way to remember is to be covered from neck to wrist to ankle. Women are required to cover their hair and there will be headscarves available to borrow. The most beautiful mosque in the country, the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, requires women to wear an abaya (long black over dress/coat) over their own clothes and you can borrow one for free there.
Everybody is required to remove their shoes before entering a mosque.
In Restaurants, Bars and Nightclubs
In popular bars and night clubs you will see people dressed the way you would in the West. All bars and clubs which sell alcohol will be within a hotel as only hotels can have liquor licences. It therefore makes good sense to be more covered up walking through the hotel than you may be while busting some moves on the dance floor.
Upmarket restaurants (generally restaurants which are licenced to sell alcohol) require men to wear long trousers and covered shoes. Emirati men in national dress – that is, the long white robe or kandourah – wear sandals all the time but this not acceptable for any man not in national dress.
Women can wear whatever they would wear to a smart restaurant back home but, again, it’s best if there is not a lot of cleavage or thigh on display. Sandals for women are fine anywhere.
At the Gym or Running Outdoors
At hotel or private gyms it’s fine to wear your usual work out gear. If you are running out doors then board shorts with a lightweight technical top are ideal for men; for women a similar outfit but with running leggings to the knee is ideal.
When you are in Dubai you will see lots of people wearing a lot less than what is suggested above. Mini skirts in the street or in the mall; hot pants walking through the airport; a see-through top over a brightly coloured bra in the supermarket etc. Though these outfits will not get you arrested (they may, however, mean you are denied entry to a mall) but they are disrespectful to local culture.
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, rules on appropriate dress are more likely to be enforced and flouting them will cause particular offence.
At the end of the day it’s a choice: to forget where you in the world and dress as you would in Europe or the Caribbean; or to accept that part of the fun of being somewhere with a different culture is that you may have to think a little differently too.
Blog and pictures by Candice