Dubai is one of the most visited cities in the world, alongside big cities like Paris and London. It’s also named the top city for international visitor spending, amounting to $30.82 billion in 2019. As the city continues to promote tourism and hospitality to foreign visitors and businessmen, it has become easier for international tourists to enter and explore the city.
However, despite being an accessible city, Dubai has its own set of official and unspoken rules based on laws, religion, and cultural differences. If you plan to visit Dubai for the first time, here are some important things you should know—the Dos and Don’ts you should observe as soon as you land at the airport.
Most areas in Dubai are traditionally conservative since Islam is the official religion in the UAE. Further, some of the historical-cultural norms in the city still apply today. Muslim men and women are required by Islam to dress modestly. Although tourists are not required to wear traditional clothing and religiously cover their whole bodies throughout their trip, they should follow dress codes in public places.
Dubai Dress Code for Women
The common rule is to wear modest clothing that covers the body from the shoulders to the knees. Sleeveless and see-through clothing are mostly not allowed in public places, except on beaches and resorts. If you wish to enter mosques and other sacred sites, you’ll be required to also cover your hair.
Dubai Dress Code for Men
Men can wear a casual outfit as long as it doesn’t show their bare chest in public. Shorts are not allowed in some areas, but knee-length shorts are generally acceptable in public.
Regardless of gender, clothing with vulgar prints, texts, or images is also not allowed. Open-toe shoes or sandals are also not permitted in some areas. Lastly, cross-dressing is frowned upon in public due to the city’s cultural norms and religious beliefs. You’ll encounter many official and unspoken rules regarding dress codes in Dubai, so be sure to check the dress code of the public location you are visiting.
Meetings and Greetings
Handshakes, kisses, and hugs are traditional greetings for locals. Tourists, too, can use them when meeting acquaintances in Dubai. However, there’s a correct way to do them.
A handshake, for one, comes with an unspoken rule. When a person is greeting a member of the opposite sex, he or she should not offer a handshake unless the other person initiates. This unspoken rule is more commonly applied to women. The reason behind this is the other person may prefer not to shake hands due to religious reasons.
A peck on the cheek and a friendly hug are also standard greetings and farewell signs in Dubai. However, couples should not mistake this for public display of affection—which is illegal in the city and may lead to imprisonment or deportation. Friends and acquaintances can share a cheek kiss and a friendly hug in public, while couples can hold hands and link arms.
Due to the COVID-19, however, the Ministry of Health and Prevention advised the public to temporarily avoid cheek and nose greeting, shaking hands, kissing, and hugging when meeting friends and acquaintances. Today’s acceptable greetings include the Islamic version of Salam, which involves raising your right hand, and the Indian version of Namaste, which involves folding your hands together near your heart and bowing to the person you’re greeting.
The greetings and farewell signs mentioned above are acceptable in public. But there are gestures that, although normal and acceptable in other countries, may be frowned upon in Dubai. Some are even illegal and may get you deported or land you in prison.
The middle finger, for example, is considered an indecent gesture in Dubai and the UAE. It is strictly prohibited even if you and your acquaintances view it as a joke. Swearing in public places is also prohibited. All these vulgar gestures are covered by Article 373 of the UAE Penal Code, which states that any person “who, by any means of publicity, disgraces the honor or the modesty of another person without attributing any particular act to the defamed party” may face detention and be required to pay a fine.
Thumbs up, okay signs, and pointing with your index finger are also frowned upon. To be safe, just stick to the standard gestures like waves, handshakes, and smiles when talking to a person. Aim not to offend anyone with foreign gestures when you’re in public places.
Eating and Drinking
Dubai is now a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities, so unspoken rules and etiquettes for eating and drinking vary, depending on the place or establishment. Generally, however, eating, drinking, smoking (including e-cigarettes), and even chewing gum in public places during Ramadan are not allowed. Eating and drinking are also completely banned on public transportation and pedestrian crossings. Alcohol, meanwhile, is only available in licensed bars and restaurants, which are located in registered hotels. You’ll need a license to buy alcohol in public and consume it at your home.
Due to the flock of tourists and expats hailing from different countries, the dining etiquette in Dubai is not very traditional anymore. In the past, it’s a common practice to eat and prepare food with the right hand, while the left hand should be reserved for other activities. While many locals still follow this practice as an automatic response, tourists may choose to eat with their left hands or both and not receive criticisms.
Of course, you should still follow standard table etiquette and manners when dining in private or luxury restaurants, such as washing your hands, chewing with your mouth closed, and using utensils properly.
Taking pictures of people in Dubai is illegal since privacy is a serious matter in the city and even the UAE. Article 378 of the UAE Penal Code (Federal Law No. 3 of 1987) strictly states that taking a stranger’s photo without permission is considered an invasion of privacy and thus punishable by law. Article 21 of the UAE Cybercrime Law also states that it’s prohibited to attack, offend, or invade a person’s privacy through the use of an “electronic information system or any information technology”.
Aside from photographs of strangers, taking pictures of government buildings, aircraft, airports, and military sites is prohibited due to security reasons. The law cites that the rule aims to protect passengers, employees, public figures, tourists, and more.
With these laws, you should be mindful of the photographs you take in public places, even if they’re selfies. Check the background of your photos before you upload them on social media or share them with other people, and see if they violate Article 378 of the UAE Penal Code or the personal privacy of the strangers involved.
Noise is an annoying, unwanted, and disrupted sound to many people. This is true in many countries and especially in Dubai. Noise disruption may lead you to legal trouble in the city.
Dubai has laws surrounding noise limits. There are maximum limits in different public establishments and private homes, especially those that are under construction. During daylight and working hours, mostly from 07:00 AM to 08:00 PM, the noise level should not exceed 55 decibels. From 8:00 PM to 7:00 AM, the limit ranges from 30 to 40 decibels. Neighborhoods and individuals can file a noise complaint to the local authorities if they encounter disruptive noises.
Public and private parties should strictly follow this law. Night bars and clubs serving alcohol are attached to registered hotels to follow the laws surrounding alcohol consumption and noise limits. Individual tourists should refrain from making loud noises in public, so keep your conversations and phone calls private.
Rules in Mosques and Other Sacred Places
As Islam remains the most prevalent religion in Dubai and the UAE, there are mosques and sacred places scattered in the city to shelter Muslims. Only two mosques in the UAE allow the entry of non-Muslims and tourists, while the rest don’t allow entry due to religious restrictions. The latter may choose to invite non-Muslims for special visits.
Here’s a list of mosques in Dubai that allow entry to non-Muslims:
Jumeirah Mosque – 35 AED per person, open from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM every day except Friday
Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque – free entry, open from 10:00 AM to 4:15 PM every day except Friday
If you wish to visit one of these mosques that welcomes tourists and travelers, you should enter the premises in proper clothing. Women should completely cover their bodies, including their hair. It’s also best not to wear make-up or perfume. Men are advised to wear long sleeves and trousers. Make sure to also wear closed-toe footwear. All visitors should ensure that their clothing is free of any kind of stain.
If you’re a foreign or international traveler, know that bringing pork, pornographic materials (magazine, videos, photographs), goods from boycotted countries, religious texts or materials against Islam, items associated with witchcraft or sorcery, and gambling tools or technology is prohibited. The list also includes other standard items that may compromise safety and security in airports and planes.
Non-muslims are allowed to buy pork products locally, but it’s prohibited to intentionally or unintentionally hide a pork product that Muslims may eat by mistake. To be safe, don’t bring pork products from outside the country. Only buy and consume pork products in the city. Alternatively, you can try the various non-pork local delicacies in the city throughout your stay.
Private Spaces for Men and Women
Due to Islamic teachings and cultural norms, Dubai prohibits serious acts of indecency, especially to non-married couples. As such, only married couples are allowed to live together and share a hotel room. This law is stated in the Tawajed clause of Article 356 of the UAE Penal Code. Members of the opposite sex are not allowed to share a private space unless they’re family members or married couples.
Despite the law, foreign couples who aren’t married can choose to stay at registered hotels, inns, and rental properties that specifically cater to international tourists. They have more relaxed rules and policies regarding men and women sharing private spaces. As such, make sure to inquire at the hotel or rental property regarding their policies before booking a room.
Ramadan is arguably the most important local holiday in Dubai and the UAE, so if you happen to visit the city during Ramadan, make sure to follow the temporary laws and regulations and pay your respects. Aside from rules concerning eating, drinking, and smoking in public, know that gatherings and parties may be prohibited in some areas. As a non-spoken rule, also pay respect to your Muslim brothers and sisters by dressing modestly, consuming your meals quickly and privately, and accepting invitations to an Iftar dinner.
Aside from Ramadan, almost all other local holidays in Dubai welcome the participation of non-Muslims, so you won’t have to follow and observe strict rules. You can celebrate and enjoy Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, Commemoration Day, National Day, and the Islamic New Year, among others.
If you’re planning to go to a party, a local gathering, or a tourist destination, take note that Dubai’s weekend is on Friday and Saturday, not the usual Saturday and Sunday. Be mindful of the city’s local and standard working hours.
As an outsider, a tourist, or a foreign traveler, remember that one should always be respectful of a country’s local customs, traditions, and beliefs. Regardless of how bizarre or unique these laws and unspoken rules are in your outsider’s perspective, make sure to follow and observe them. These rules are standard and essential to locals since they have an established system that has worked for years. They have a culture and tradition backed by years of history.
Dubai has lots of excellent experiences to offer to tourists, so just enjoy your stay, forget about the things you can’t do, and remember the Dos and Don’ts. Be a friendly and responsible guest throughout your stay!