Like pretty much everywhere else in the Gulf, Dubai only really gets going in the cooler evening and night-time hours. As dusk falls, the streets light up in a blaze of neon and the pavements begin to fill up with a cosmopolitan crowd of Emiratis, Arabs, Westerners, Indians and Filipinos. The city’s vibrant nightlife takes many forms. Western expats and tourists tend to make for the city’s restaurants, bars and clubs, while locals and expat Arabs can be found relaxing in the city’s myriad shisha cafés. Souks and shopping malls across the city fill up with crowds of consumers from all walks of Dubai society – most remain remarkably busy right up to when they close around midnight; bars and clubs meanwhile kick on until the small hours.
Dubai has a reasonably busy clubbing scene, driven by a mix of Western expats and tourists along with the city’s large expat Arab (particularly Lebanese) community. Music tends to be a fairly mainstream selection of house, hip-hop and r’n’b (perhaps with a splash of Arabic pop), although a healthy number of visiting international DJs help keep things fresh. The emphasis at more upmarket places still tends to be on posing and pouting – expect to see lots of beautiful young things from Beirut or Bombay quaffing champagne and inspecting their make-up – although there’s more fashion-free and egalitarian clubbing to be had at places like Zinc and N’dulge.
In terms of more cultural diversions, there’s significantly less on offer. Dubai is widely derided as the city that culture forgot – and in many ways the stereotype is richly deserved. The city has five-star hotels, luxury spas, celebrity chefs and shopping malls aplenty, but only lacked even a single proper theatre (and a poor one at that). Even now, the city’s musical life is largely limited to Filipino cover bands and the occasional big-name visiting rock act.
Things are, however, changing – albeit slowly. Dubai now hosts a decent range of cultural festivals, including good film and jazz events, while the emergence of alternative venues like The Fridge and DUCTAC suggests that even Dubai is finally realizing the size of the hole in its own head. In addition, the long-awaited opening of the new Dubai Opera House will hopefully provide a massive shot in the arm for the city’s moribund performing arts scene.
Where Dubai has scored a major success, however, is in establishing itself as the Gulf’s art capital, boasting a remarkable number of independent galleries, many set up by expats from around the Arab world and showcase a healthy spread of cutting-edge work by a range of international artists.
Art galleries have positively mushroomed over Dubai during the past few years. For comprehensive listings, check out wartinthecity.co.uk, which also covers galleries in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. The (unlikely) hub of the city’s art scene is undoubtedly the run-down industrial area of Al Quoz, off Sheikh Zayed Road, whose low rents have attracted a string of gallery owners from across the Arab world. There's also a cluster of more upmarket galleries in the Gate Village at the DIFC. The city hosts two big annual arts festivals in mid-March, when Art Dubai and the SIKKA Art Festival hit town.
Dubai is well equipped with a string of modern multiplexes serving up all the latest Hollywood blockbusters, plus a few Bollywood flicks and the occasional Arabic film – although screenings of alternative and arthouse cinema are rare outside the excellent Dubai International Film Festival. It’s worth bearing in mind that the authorities censor any scenes featuring nudity, sex, drugs and homosexuality, as well as anything of a sensitive religious or political nature. Tickets cost around 35–50dh, while some cinemas have also introduced so-called “Gold” class screenings in their smaller auditoriums (tickets around 100dh) complete with luxurious reclining seats and personal table service.
Club venues come and go on an annual basis, so it’s worth checking the latest listings in Time Out Dubai (wtimeoutdubai.com) or visiting wplatinumlist.net to find out what’s new and happening. Entrance charges generally vary depending on who’s playing; entrance is sometimes free (the earlier you arrive the better your chances, especially if you're young, well dressed, attractive and – most crucially – female); blokes can expect to pay 50–100dh. Unfortunately, quite a few places (including several high-profile venues) suffer from truly lousy service – with neanderthal bouncers, officious waiters and pushy bartenders as standard. Note too that most places also have a couples-only policy (which may or may not be enforced depending on how busy they are) – in general it’s also worth dressing to impress, or prepare to be turned away. Quite a few bars have regular live DJs and a club-like ambience later on at night, particularly if there’s a special event on.
For an authentic Arabian alternative to the pub, club or bar, nothing beats a visit to one of Dubai’s shisha cafés. These are the places where local Emiratis and expat Arabs tend to head when they want to kick back, lounging around over endless cups of coffee while puffing away on a shisha (also known as a waterpipe), filling the air with aromatic clouds of perfumed smoke – far more fragrant than your average smoke-filled pub. Many of Dubai’s Arabian restaurants also do a good line in shisha, and the best places will have twenty or more varieties to choose from, with all sorts of fruit-scented flavours, plus a house special or two.