Culture and etiquette
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. Surveys 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 “offensive” hand gestures – 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.
Everything you need to know before you set off.
Travel offers; book through Rough Guides
Planning your trip to Dubai
Everything you need to plan where to go and what to do.
The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.
6 things every family must do in Dubai
Dubai is the most spectacular playground on Earth. The desire to make everything bigger and brighter and better has created a city of superlatives – and for w…
Burj Khalifa: is the world’s tallest building worth the hype?
One of Dubai’s main attractions and currently the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa draws in hundreds of people daily to marvel at the views from i…
Away from the skyscrapers: how to find the “other” Dubai
It’s big, brash and lays claim to so many world records it might even have the world record for the number of world records. But beyond the superlatives, skys…