I lived in Dubai for 5 years and I used to get the same questions over and over again from visitors as they were planning their trip or even from friends back home. Shall I bring a scarf to cover my head? What should I wear? Do people speak English?
So here are my key know-hows for the tiny Emirate.
1. Dress as you would back home
Unless you are prone to kinky clothes or like to show off your recently acquired gym abs you are likely to be just fine with the clothes you would wear back home. At the malls there are signs asking people to cover shoulders and knees but, in any case (read point no.2) you would be too cold for that.
Overall recommendation is try to wear long sleeves and pants or skirts to the knee but there is absolutely no need to cover your head or face or to wear long clothes. This is not Saudi Arabia or Iran
2. Bring a scarf and a jacket
Why? You would ask in disbelief… even in the dead hot summer when temperatures reach 50 Celsius outside for 3 months on a row you are never, ever, under any circumstance, going to be outside and, inside, temperatures are below the 30 degree mark so, actually, you will need a jacket and scarf. I had to buy more light jackets in Dubai than I bought summery dresses because the city is not laid out for walking but for driving so you are essentially indoors most of the time. It is not a very environmentally friendly city.
3. No Emiratis
In 5 years I never met an Emirati person. This may be partially my fault but I don’t know anyone who has either. Locals have their own socializing and places they like to go and there is zero mingling. If you were expecting to interact with locals you are unlikely to do so. You won’t find them at the tourist spots either, they won’t be serving you at a restaurant or be manning any of the attractions. I only ever interacted with locals at the Government agencies when processing driving license, Employment Passes, etc. or at the immigration counters at the airport. If you are looking for the insider scoop on the city, interact with expats, at least they will tell you more about life in this real-live Disney for adults
4. When not to come
I have just mentioned this but this was one of those things I had to repeatedly tell my friends threatening to come after seeing dramatically discounted air fares. There is a reason why flights in the summer are so cheap. If something is too good to be true it usually is and air fares during summer in Dubai is one of them. Whereas summer may be the best time to visit almost any place it is the worst time to come to the Middle East, full stop.
Dubai is usually scarce for fun, historical or touristy sights. The top-10 things to do involve shopping, malls, tall views, the higher/bigger/taller/most expensive ________ and a couple of genuinely nice experiences involving nature. If what you are looking for is shopping, by all means take that cheap fare. But if you are planning to enjoy the outdoors, walk around the world’s tallest tower, sun bathe on the beach or enjoy a night out in a desert safari avoid coming from May to September. It will be so hot that none of the above is feasible. I am not talking about unpleasant, sweaty weather than you just don’t enjoy, I am talking about life-threatening temperature that no human being can endure. And mind you, at night, it is just the same, temperatures do not drop, they are 50 during the day and 49 at night with the same 100% level of humidity, that is the conditions of most steam baths so you get the gist.
The sea is so hot that it reaches 40 degrees so forget about getting in the water to cool off. The only sun bathing we used to do in the summer is in the refrigerated condo pools and even then, we had to be in the water the entire time because out of it it is too hot to survive. So all you will be left doing is going for massages and to the mall. This is life in Dubai during those fatal 4 months
Another time when it is best not to come and which, for the next few years overlaps with summer, is Ramadan. This is the month of fasting and, whether you are a muslim or not, you won’t be allowed to drink, eat, smoke, swear or, theoretically, have sex during the daylight hours. That means few restaurants will be open, only those than can be hidden from view. So if you do to a mall (remember that is the only place you can go in the summer) there won’t be any food or drinks available until nighttime. And days are very long in the summer.
Although you may think it is an interesting time of the year to visit, read point 3 again. You are unlikely to interact with locals and you will only see Ramadan through the lavish Iftar buffers the various hotels put up which are frequented by, you guessed it, expats. There are a couple of Iftar celebrations hosted by the Tourism Agency which provide a bit more insight but it is a bad time to come. If you want to experience it, come on the last day when you can see Iftar once and then join in the Eid celebrations and the normal food/drinks situation.
So you thought that coming in the winter would be a good idea? Careful if you manage to make it for the 5 days a year when it rains because the country is not prepared for it. I have to give them credit for this as there is no way the investment required to build drainage would ever pay off so I think this was a smart decision. The only problem is that when it rains the roads flood, the shopping malls leak and the entire places is a bit of a mess. Fret not, rain only ever happens in February which is also a bad month to visit because it is usually too cold to sun bathe and enjoy the good warm weather
6. Nobody speaks Arabic
You have been taking Arabic classes for a few months and were planning to practice a bit?
Read point no.3 above. There are no Emiratis in sight and everyone is an expat so Arabic is not spoken by anyone other than the Lebanese expats who also speak perfect English. There are only a few words you need to know, because everyone, expat or local, uses them: Khalas (which means “Done”), Yalla (for let’s go) and the queen of all words: “Insha’allah” which is the most widely used word of all times. It may mean from “Maybe, God Willing” to “I don’t think so” and it is used as a response to any request. Assess its true meaning by the looks on the person’s face or the tone
7. Forget public transportation
Taxis is what everyone considers public transportation, there isn’t anything else that deserves to be included in this section. Well, there is the Metro but let’s face it, nobody takes it because it drops you at random places far from the place of interest you were looking to reach and taxis are very affordable. If you are planning to take the Metro to see the Burj Khalifa be ready to walk for 15min from the station.
Remember my point on the weather? Don’t be a fool and take the metro in the summer thinking you’ll enjoy the AC in the carriages, once you come out and realize you need to walk for a long time to reach the tower you will rush to hail a cab. Also, don’t be afraid that taxi drivers will reject a trip down the corner, nobody expects you to walk in the 50 degree heat, not even for 50 meters
8. It is ridiculously safe
Dubai is a place where you can leave you door open at all times, your car unlocked and your stack of Dirhams on the table, go to the restroom and come back to find them just as you left them. It is so ridiculously safe that you may find yourself trying to play tricks to find the one mischievous person. And you won’t find it. I guess the very tough law that cuts people’s hands off for stealing is paying off.
9. Things that should not be done
There re a few things that, even open-minded and progressive Dubai does not allow so beware of the following:
- People are not stoned to death for adultery in Dubai, but they are in neighboring Fujeirah. In Dubai they are a bit more “relaxed” but be careful with Sharjah, the Emirate just next door where Shariah Law is enforced and where drinking is not allowed anywhere and a woman cannot be alone in a car with a men not from her family. If you are a woman and find yourself in a cab with a male taxi driver having to cross Sharjah make sure to swap into a female driver. You may not even realize you are entering the Emirate because there are no borders, it’s all the same country.
- Drinking is allowed in Dubai but, technically speaking, everyone, including a tourist, should have an alcohol license o drink. Alcohol is served only at 4 and 5 star hotels and you can buy it at the duty free. Don’t be the silly tourist who ends up in prison for disorderly behavior when drunk out in the city. The fact that the police looks the other way when you are drinking without a license doesn’t mean that they won’t arrest you if you cause problems. Being drunk is an offense, you will be imprisoned, fined and deported
- No public displays of affection. Do not hold hands, do not kiss. This is enforced and you may be reprimanded if found by the police or even other locals. Refrain
This is a very funny thing to experience. Suddenly, one day, you find the packets of Special K have large white stickers covering the entire packaging. There was am unacceptable and revealing drawing of a woman’s shape which had to be censured.
Censure is so pervasive that it turns into a Where is Wally exercise. You go tot he cinema and you see the movies being cut when the characters are about to kiss. The next scene is the following morning, at breakfast. Most doubtful movies are banned, like Sex and the City or 50 Shades of Grey because they would have had to cut 55 min of the film. Magazines don’t escape the cut and you can find black marker all over female magazines
11. Friday is brunch day
Do you truly want to be like a local? You could obviously go to a mosque on a Friday, after all they are the day of rest, but you are unlikely going to be allowed in, unless you are Muslim. So Fridays are brunch day.
When you live in Dubai there is not that much to do in the weekends so after you have already partaken in all the (very few) touristy activities all you are left is with the basic day to day of a small place with malls, some coffee places and massages/pedicures/manicures. So Friday brunch is almost like a pilgrimage. Expats flock to the main venues along Jumeirah, like the Al Qasr Hotel or on the Palm or Deira. All large hotels offer it. You will arrive at noon and stay until it closes at 4pm by which time you will be in a food coma and absolutely drunk. Ready for siesta? Until the evening, when you wake up to go, you guessed it, for dinner and party. Oh the life of a Dubai expat…
12. People dress up
I guess that this may be because there is not much else to do but people do dress up a lot to go for dinner or out at night. Shopping is the national sport and I found prices to be similar to those in Spain so affordable to most people. I accumulated an incredible range of designer shoes and clothes so, if I did it, most people would. Since I left Dubai I have never bought a pair again but in Dubai it felt like everyone was always over dressed for the occasion wearing expensive and flawless clothes to dinner dates. It helps that the restaurants tend to be flashy and have over the top service. If you like to feel like a start for the night, go for it