WRITTEN BY EDITOR KALAHAN DENG
Dubai is a fun and frivolous playground on the Persian Gulf, but don’t consider it the Vegas of the Middle East. While this eclectic city is one of the most permissive, relaxed, cosmopolitan destinations in the region, you do have to watch your behavior to some degree. What’s considered appropriate in your home country may be inappropriate if not illegal there, so bone-up on the local rules before visiting. Cross the line and the consequences may be dire. In fact, many of foreigners were thrown in jail for unwittingly committing an offense. Don’t be alarmed or put off, however. Just adhere to some basic guidelines and cultural sensitivities and you can have a good time without offending anyone or breaking any local laws. Here are 12 definite things not to do when in Dubai.
1. Don’t Do Drugs
Just say no to dabbling in drugs in Dubai. This should be common sense, but it’s worth stressing there. Dubai has a zero tolerance policy towards possession, use and selling of illicit substances. It goes beyond the standard list of illegal narcotics you’d expect like marijuana, ecstasy, heroine and cocaine. Even prescription pharmaceuticals and some over-the-counter medications may be considered contraband. Some travelers have been incarcerated for carrying something as innocuous as codeine-based painkillers in their toiletry kit. Others have flown in from Amsterdam with traces of (legal there) pot in their system and were jailed for failing a drug test. Do your homework on what is and isn’t permitted before bringing anything potentially suspect into the country.
2. Don’t Drink in Public
Dubai is one of the most liberal locations in the Muslim world when it comes to booze consumption. However you have to respect the rules, be discreet and not cross the line or you could be in big trouble. Foreign residents are allowed to drink alcohol at home if they obtain a license. You can get this online or at a bottle shop, but you’ll need permission from your employer. Travelers and experts can also imbibe at licensed hotels, but don’t overdo it. Public inebriation is not tolerated there, so go easy on that all-you-can-drink champagne brunch, nightclub or bar binge. Once you step out of the venue and appear even slightly tipsy you may be charged. And, please, never ever drive while under the influence. They’ll throw the book at you, so this is definitely one of the things not to do in Dubai.
3. No Nudity
This one should go without saying, but nudity is not allowed in public places. Appropriate swimwear is okay at the beach, pool or water parks, but women must refrain from going topless. And men, keep that six-pack undercover and put a shirt on when walking through the streets, even on the jogging paths.
4. No Song and Dance
Playing loud music and dancing in the streets is one of the things not to do in Dubai. Put away that boombox and resist the urge to bust a move unless you’re on an official dance floor.
5. Don’t Pucker Up in Public
Public displays of affection are considered indecent in Dubai, so keep your make-out sessions completely private. A few years back a British couple was jailed for having sex on a beach, but even lesser affectionate gestures can get you in trouble too. One twosome was arrested for locking lips in the back of a taxi – that’s not private enough here. Even a casual peck on the cheek between friends should be avoided. You do see some married couples or same-sex pals holding hands, but this is a grey area. It’s best to refrain from all forms of PDA to stay on the safe side.
6. Watch Your Tongue
No public cussing there, please. A tourist was charged with saying “what the f***” to an undercover policeman a while back. Bite your tongue and keep the insults, profanity and vulgar language to yourself. And do not under any circumstances spout any blasphemous or disparaging remarks against Islam in Dubai. This is considered a serious, punishable offense and more than a handful of foreigners have been jailed for making an off-the-cuff comment. Just have a little cultural sensitivity and refrain from any utterances that may be deemed insulting to Muslims. Furthermore, making negative comments about the ruling families or even prominent Emirati businessmen should be avoided. You may have all sorts of opinions and insights, but keep them to yourself or carefully whispered amongst your inner circle of trusted confidants to avoid trouble. Freedom of speech is not a universal right.
7. Keep Style Sensible
Dubai is a stylish cosmopolitan city with all the latest designer fashions from around the world, but there has been a recent crackdown on women wearing tight, short, low-cut, skimpy or suggestive clothing in public spaces. You’ll see signs about this modesty campaign posted in the Dubai malls. This rule seems open to interpretation and hard to police, but keep your clothing relatively conservative (ie: don’t flash a lot of skin and curves) and you should be fine rather than fined.
8. Watch Your Photography
Many travelers to foreign lands want to capture pictures of local people in their national dress as a photographic souvenir of their trip. However, you must be respectful of local customs and conventions when it comes to this. In Dubai it is considered rude and intrusive to snap shots of people, especially women, without expressed permission.
9. Watch Your Wallet
Dubai has a relatively low crime rate and one tends to get complacent about basic street smarts after a while. However, petty opportunistic crime does happen there, as everywhere. Put your purse down or flash your wallet around and you could be asking for trouble. Use the same kind of precautions as you would in any big city. Better to be vigilant than sorry.
10. Keep Your LGBT Lifestyle on the QT
While other places in the world are getting more accepting of LGBT lifestyles, the UAE is definitely not a place to flaunt it. Any sexual relations outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage is considered a crime in Dubai. Even cross-dressing is illegal there. There is an underground gay scene in Dubai, but crackdowns happen and you’d be safer to avoid it. Same-sex couples should refrain from any PDA, just like heterosexual couples should. Be who you are, but be discreet and you shouldn’t have any issues.
11. Don’t Eat in Public During Ramadan
If you happen to be in Dubai during the holy month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar), do not eat, drink or smoke in public while Muslims are fasting from dawn til dusk. Don’t even sneak a snack in your car. Even public gum chewing is disrespectful. You can consume freely in your hotel premises or the privacy of your home, but most other eating establishments will be closed for business. Tourists regardless of their religious background should not munch, slurp or puff away in the streets during daylight. Small children and pregnant/nursing moms are an exception, but discretion is advised.
12. Don’t Use Your Left Hand
The left hand is traditionally used for “body hygiene” in Muslim cultures, therefore be mindful to avoid using it in certain circumstances. Don’t greet anyone with a left handed shake. Don’t open doors with your left hand. Don’t hand somebody something, especially food, with your left hand. Definitely don’t eat with your left hand. It’s just considered unclean even if you’ve just washed up with a vat of antibacterial soap. It’s okay to drink with your left hand, however. Naturally left-handed people should try to become ambidextrous as best they can in these situations to avoid offending the locals.