I’ll fill you in on my takes and tidbits on Emirati culture later. For now, I’ll offer some insights into some things that really puzzled us either before we got to the UAE or once we got here.
On a quick note, I learned last night that me + Arabian coffee + sheesha = no way in hell I’m getting ANY sleep. Part of the casualties of being a travel warrior, I guess.
What to wear
This was probably the biggest question we had before getting to the UAE. The last thing I wanted was to be an ignorant tourist. “What to wear” is likely more of an issue if you’re a woman. If you do any research on the internet, there are a lot of contradictions. When you find one source that says to be conservative, you’ll find another one that says not to worry and just wear what you want.
We erred on the side of caution, and I’m glad we did. Our wardrobe consisted of long and cropped linen pants, long-sleeve button down linen shirts, t-shirts that didn’t show too much cleavage, long dresses, and scarves. We blended in and were pretty comfortable in the heat.
Here’s some things that we observed that could help:
- Abu Dhabi v. Dubai: Stick to more conservative attire in the more conservative city of Abu Dhabi. Just be prepared for sweltering humidity to go with the heat. Consider bringing cooling towels that you can wrap around your neck if you need to be outside.
- At the beach or pool: Wear any swimsuit you want. Just bring a coverup for when you’re ready to head back to your car, room, etc. Maxi dresses can be your best friend.
- Walking around the streets: Pretty much anything goes, from shorts and tank tops to something more. Some of the locals we met said, “Emiratis need to be more accepting if they want to be a tourist destination.” While I agree, I’m about experiencing the culture, not forcing mine down their throat. You’ll be fine in whatever you wear. Personally, I’m not donning shorts and tank tops.
- Beating the heat: Loose linen will be your best friend. I wore long-sleeve linen shirts and linen pants in 106-degree heat and stayed relatively cool. (It was great in the desert at night when it gets down to 95 degrees.) Form-fitting cotton will be your enemy.
- At the mall: Dubai Mall is much less conservative than the Mall of the Emirates, so anything goes at the Dubai Mall (even at night, see below!). While no one will say anything to you at the Mall of the Emirates, you’ll stick out (not in a comfortable way) if you don’t have your knees and shoulders covered.
- A night on the town: This is where you see a lot of variety. We headed to the Dubai Mall for dinner, drinks, and “scenery.” I wore a halter jumpsuit that bared my shoulders and Kristen wore a long-ish dress that showed some cleavage; we fit in just fine. We saw a group of club-bound gals opting for tight, short, and cleavage. If you’re just going to dinner, stick to something just a tad more conservative. I could have worn a short, flowy dress with a sheer kimono and felt sexy, yet respectfully covered.
How to shop
If you head to the souks, it’s definitely a bartering society. This means two things:
- You can get 75% discounts (or more)
- You will have people aggressively in your face, whether you’re interested in something or not
I shared my sentiments about the crazy art of bartering when I was in Morocco a few years ago. Simplest advice when you head to the souks: Dress down. The vendors size you up the second they see you, and if you look expensive, their first offer to you is going to be really high. Just make sure you know the maximum you want to pay before you start bartering … and start way below that, even if it’s 95% less than their initial offer. (My brother bought a rug in Morocco for $350. The vendor’s initial offer was $5,000!)
Kristen and I apparently looked like ladies on the hunt for bags, despite being in the spice and gold souks. I’m not exaggerating when I say pretty much every guy who came up to us showed us a picture of bags and then went through his list of designers at turbo speed: Michael Kors, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade, etc. If you’ve ever seen the Disney rendition of Aladdin (pronounced El-Adeen), you may remember a scene where Jasmine is walking through the souk and a guy yells at her: “Sugar dates! Sugar dates and figs! Sugar dates and pistachioooos!” That’s pretty much how we felt, but this time the topic was “designer” handbags.
The Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates have pretty much everything you could think of. From designer (Carolina Herrera, Christian Louboutain, Dior, etc) to everything else you could imagine, it’s there. Plus, there are some fun, out of the ordinary highlights at each.
A massive aquarium and ice skating rink await you at the Dubai Mall.
Go skiing and play life-size Monopoly at the Mall of the Emirates.
Drinking in Dubai
Many restaurants serve drinks. Just know that you’ll pay a premium for them. I ordered three vodka cucumber drinks and Kristen ordered three spicy margaritas at the Karma Kafe in the Dubai Mall. Our tab for those six drinks was nearly $150, which was more than our food.
While most Muslims in the UAE opt for coffee and cigarettes over alcohol, know that so long you’re not acting like a complete fool, you won’t be treated like a fool for drinking.
Dating in Dubai
We of course asked our local tour guides about dating. It’s different between the more conservative Emirati and other muslims. Legally, Muslim men in the UAE can have up to four wives, but there are strict rules around this. (I’ll share more in a future update.)
- Emirati men: Basically, once he’s interested in getting married, he tells his mom, who then reaches out to her social circle for any prospects. The potential couple then meets with the whole family and those two decide if they like each other. They can date as long as they want, but cannot be alone anywhere together until they’re engaged. Once engaged, the families talk about the terms of the marriage (basically, a dowry for her). After that’s settled, they’re officially engaged and can go out together alone in public. It’s only until the 1-week to 1-month long wedding ceremony is over that they can live together as husband and wife.
- Other Muslim men: All our tour guides were men (but were Arab Muslims from different countries), and they all seemed to be unified in saying that they have less dating restrictions. They can flirt and approach women as they want.
Funny story: We sat on the patio at the Karma Kafe to enjoy the scenery, including the people, the Burj Khalifa, and the water fountain. When we walked back inside to leave for the night, there was an AMAZING looking brown-haired, bearded, Tarzan-channeling Western man who was on.the.PROWL. He was with friends but was targeting his gaze (and body) out on every female who walked past him. He made zero attempt to hide that he was checking us out. I smiled, nodded, and winked as we walked out. Sexy as hell, but WAY too cocky.
That brings me to how men treat women. I hear a lot of interesting conversation in America about Arab or Muslim men. The usual sentiment is that “they treat their women like shit.” I’m by no means an expert, but after visiting two Arab countries where the majority religion is Muslim, I can say that personally, I feel the men here are incredibly respectful of women. They don’t ogle, make cat calls, and definitely don’t do any unwanted touching. They are kind, courteous, well-mannered, and really treat you like a human. I’ve been all over the world and can say I felt more safe among a group of men here in the UAE than I have when in a group surrounded by a bunch of Western men. Truth be told, Western men could learn a lot.
Disclaimer: These are my cultural observations
Again, everything noted above were based on my (and Kristen’s) observations as people who’ve been all over the world. We intentionally ask a lot of questions for two reasons:
- To make sure we’re agreeing with the local customs
- We’re just really curious people
So if you’re concerned or have questions about anything I wrote, I’m happy to chat with you about it. But also remember, everyone is entitled to my opinion … I mean your opinion. 😉