Dubai culture shock

Learn more about cultural norms in the laid-back Muslim city of Dubai

Setting Up Guide, Settingup
Setting Up Guide, Settingup

Dubai is effectively bilingual – road signs, maps and daily newspapers are in English, and most Emiratis speak the language well. However, some public sector staff don’t have the same language skills; at some time during your stay, a public official is bound to say, ‘Yanni, give me passport’ or ‘I want form’. This brusqueness has more to do with the imprecise art of translating Arabic to English than a desire to be rude. Meeting your hosts halfway is the least that you can do; the look of genuine delight on a local’s face when they hear you speaking their language makes it worth it.

Islam is ever present and you will soon become accustomed to the sound of the call to prayer from neighbouring mosque’s loudspeakers. Muslims pray five times each day facing Mecca. It’s not uncommon to see people praying in office corridors or by the side of the road, while there are prayer rooms for Muslims at most shopping centres and at the airport (usually located near the bathrooms). Avoid walking in front of anyone praying, and don’t stare. As for other faiths, the UAE is pretty tolerant and allows temples and churches (see p143 for a list of non-Muslim places of worship), though active promotion is not allowed. There are many days each year commemorating aspects of Islam, and most will mean a public holiday.

The holy month of Ramadan is a particularly special time for Muslims. They are required to abstain from eating, drinking and smoking between sunrise and sunset – and expats are asked to refrain from the above in public, or you could get a fine and possible jail sentence. Pregnant women and young children are exempt, but the general idea is to not flaunt food or drink and ‘tempt’ those observing the fast. During this month, cafés and restaurants will close or lower their blinds during the day; some shops will also shut and only reopen at sunset. Loud music and dancing are also banned during the month. However, the evening festivities known as iftar can be enjoyed by locals and expats, with most hotels erecting special Ramadan tents for fast-breaking feasting and traditional celebrations.

National dress
You will find most Emiratis wear their national dress in public, though at home, most tend to wear Western-style clothing. Men wear the white full-length robe known as a dishdash/a, with a red head dress called a gutra. The black cord that wraps around the gutra is an agal, which Bedouins once used to secure camels. Women wear the black-coloured robe called an abaya with a head scarf known as a sheila. These days it’s becoming increasingly rare to see a plain abaya – along with designer sunglasses and bags, abayas are going through a fashion revolution. Many are embroidered and embellished with beads or even Swarovski crystals. Though it’s less common, you will spot, usually older, Arab women wearing a burkha – a tough, fabric mask covering their faces.

Women in Dubai
A common misconception of the Arab world is that women are restricted; however Emirati women are free to drive and pursue studies and hobbies. Generally, unmarried men and women tend to lead separate lives – although, for young people, mobile phones, the popularity of higher education, cinemas and malls has facilitated a low level of long-distance flirting. At public events it’s rare to see Emirati wives accompanying their husbands. At weddings, women usually hold separate celebrations to the men, and some areas of life, such as local football matches, are still off-limits to women. These traditions, which extend to ladies’ days in parks, female-only beaches, and women being served first or separately in banks or other queues, sit alongside the rise of the Emirati businesswoman and the prominent role taken by some of the Sheikhas. Men are advised not offer their hand to shake to an Emirati woman. If she offers her hand to you, a shake is acceptable but, if she doesn’t, a smile and a nod is the appropriate way for you to introduce yourself.

The weekend
The official weekend is Friday and Saturday. Friday is the Islamic holy day, with many shops and souks staying shut until late afternoon.


Non-Muslims aren’t normally allowed inside mosques, but the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts tours to the Jumeirah Mosque on Jumeirah Beach Road every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10am-11.15am. The best bit? You don’t need to call ahead or make any prior arrangements – you just show up, oh and it's only Dhs10! You’ll get a chance to walk through the interior in small groups followed by a cultural talk, where you can ask about the mosque and Islam – don't hold back; they will answer anything. You must wear modest clothing covering your arms, shoulders and legs and women must wear a head scarf. All visitors will be asked to remove their shoes before entering the mosque. Private tours can also be arranged by contacting the centre at 04 353 6666 or emailing:

Arabic essentials

Hello: Marhaba

How are you?: Kaifa Haloki? (female); Kaifa Haloka? (male)

Goodbye: Ma'a Al Salama

Excuse me: Afwan

Sorry: Ana Asef(a)

Please: Min Fadleki (female); Min Fadleka (male)

Stop: Tawakaf

Thanks: Shukran

Yes/No: Na'am/La

I don’t know: La A'aref

Who?/What?: Man / Maza

Where?/Why?: Ayna/ Limaza

Do you speak English?: Hal Tatakalamina Al Englizya? (female); Hal Tatakalamo Al Englizya? (male)

I don’t speak Arabic: Ana La AtaKalam El Arabeya

Where is the hospital?: Ayna Al Mustashfa?
To learn Arabic, Eton Institute (800Eton; and the Arabic Language Centre (04 308 6036;, offer courses. *With thanks to Dr Ali Mohamad


Recreational drugs are strictly forbidden, even a residual amount. Consuming or carrying drugs, even if you are transiting through the airport from one country to another, can result in a four-year prison sentence and deportation. Buying or selling narcotics is considered a serious crime and a life-imprisonment sentence can easily be handed out so, don’t even think about it. Some medicines, accepted in other countries, which contain psychotropic substances are also forbidden and it’s always a good idea to check the UAE Ministry of Health website – – for clarification. If you are using prescribed drugs, make sure you carry your prescription with you, and if you are importing prescription drugs, you may need to seek prior agreement from the UAE authorities. Drug Control Department, UAE Ministry of Health: 02 611 7342;

Dos and Don’ts

While Dubai is a fairly liberal city and the majority of the population is made up of expatriates, local traditions and customs should be respected.
Be drunk in public: Do not drink or be seen to be drunk outside of licensed premises in hotels.

Drink and drive: Not even one drink: if even a trace of alcohol is found in your blood stream and you are behind the wheel, you face a prison sentence.

Do drugs: There is a zero tolerance of drug use (see p20).

Kiss in public: When it comes to public displays of affection, anything more than a kiss on the cheek may offend those around you and may get you in trouble.

Swear: Making rude hand gestures or shouting foul language can lead to arrests.

Flout your un-married couple status: It is technically illegal for unrelated members of the opposite sex to live together. However, it is generally allowed if you don't draw attention to yourselves. Homosexuality is illegal in Dubai.

Dress sensibly:
Bare chests for men and bikinis for women are fine at the beach and swimming pool, but you should cover up in public areas. Topless sun-bathing and G-strings are strictly not allowed. Women don’t have to wear a veil or cover their shoulders, but should keep in mind local sensibilities when dressing, particularly if visiting a crowded place such as a souk or shopping mall. You should also dress more conservatively during the holy month of Ramadan (see p20).

Drink: You can consume alcohol at licensed bars, restaurants, hotels and, if you have an alcohol licence (see p27), you can buy alcohol from special outlets (p27) and consume it at home.

Eat pork: Pork is served in many restaurants and large supermarkets usually have a discreet pork section for non-Muslims. Cooking up pork at a public barbecue is a no-no, however.

Enjoy yourself: Don't let all the 'don'ts' put you off; despite what the press may say, if you break a rule, the police won't lock you up and throw away the key. You will likely get a warning first and only if you continue to flout the rule will the police take it further.

Sponsored: Hendrick’s DXB Cucumber Day is fast approaching

This week’s episode of the Time Out Dubai podcast rolls up its sleeves

The al fresco theme park will be opening its gates with a new show

The critically acclaimed Shakespeare play will be performed in January

The beachside dining spot is celebrating international coffee day at its brand-new branch

Feeling the pinch? Fear not. We've got 16 weekend feasts for under Dhs300 for you


Follow us