Despite its glossy Western veneer and apparently liberal ways, it’s important to remember that Dubai is an Islamic state, and that visitors are expected to comply with local cultural norms or risk the consequences. Recent Foreign Office figures have shown that Britons are more likely to get arrested in the UAE than in any other country in the world, mainly for the sort of actions – public drunkenness, “lewd” behaviour, or just eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan – which would be considered unexceptional back home.
There are a few simple rules to remember if you want to stay out of trouble. Any public display of drunkenness outside a licensed venue contravenes local law, and could get you locked up. Driving while under any sort of influence is even more of a no-no. Inappropriate public behaviour with members of the opposite sex can result in, at best, embarrassment, or, at worst, a spell in prison. Holding hands or a peck on the cheek is probably just about OK, but any more passionate displays of public affection are severely frowned upon. The infamous case of Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, who were jailed for three months after allegedly having sex on the beach and assaulting a policeman, received widespread coverage, although far less overt demonstrations of affection can potentially land you in big trouble; in 2010 two British citizens were sentenced to a month in jail for allegedly kissing one another on the lips in public at a restaurant. Offensive gestures are another source of possible danger. Giving someone the finger or even just sticking out your tongue might be considered rude at home but can get you jailed in Dubai. This is particularly worth remembering when driving, since even a frustrated flap of the hands could potentially land you in trouble.
In terms of general etiquette, except around the hotel pool, modest dress is expected of all visitors – although many expat women do pretty much the exact opposite. Dressing “indecently” is potentially punishable under law (even if actual arrests are extremely rare) although exactly what constitutes indecent attire isn’t clearly defined – though obviously the shorter your skirt and the lower your top, the more likely you are to attract attention. Even men who wear shorts can raise eyebrows – to the locals it looks like you’re walking around in your underwear. In addition, if you’re fortunate enough to spend any time with Emiratis, remember that only the right hand should be used for eating and drinking (this rule also applies in Indian establishments), and don’t offer to shake the hand of an Emirati woman unless she extends hers towards you.