I knew nothing about Dubai culture before I was somehow forced to get to know it from the inside… thanks to my job!I remember that day very well. I was just in the middle of after-Xmas-sale shopping, when I got that call: Magda, pack your bags, in 3 three days you are flying to Dubai. Where? Dubai? For half a year? Now, when someone asks me to “how did you make it”, I giggle a bit inside. Before I went there, I had a lot of different ideas how this city looks like, mainly negative ones, created by the news. What to know before visiting Dubai? Let’s talk about 5 most common Dubai culture myths.
Let this spontaneity of my departure excuse my initial ignorance regarding Dubai culture. Yes, I landed in Warsaw (from Munich) at 9.30 am and I had to catch another flight to Dubai at 1.20 pm. In between I had to go back to my flat to pack my stuff. I think I must have been close to some kind of record, cause I was able to pack in 20 minutes for a month stay – in the meantime stressing out that taxi, which I took to arrive, is no longer waiting for me. We rushed back to the airport. In my head different thoughts started popping up. Is it true that Dubai is only about laws & prohibitions and European (in addition woman!) hardly fits in? Who would have thought that I have just started one of the best adventure in my life.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT DUBAI CULTURE?
Dubai, as well as it’s neighbour Abu Dhabi, is a very cosmopolitan place. To make economy development possible, Emiratis had to extend their manpower. They needed both – high but also less skilled human resources, which would be hired for jobs which Emiratis didn’t want to take. Sheikhs had to make a choice – openness to others and development at the expense of westernization or remaining faithful to Islam and reliance on (scarce) oil resources… As you might guess, the first option prevailed.
Every year, thousands of expats come here from all over the world, many companies attract managers who previously worked in New York, London or Sydney. In addition, Dubai also attracts workers from Asian countries, who are mainly engaged in simple jobs – catering, retail stores, taxi drivers, baby-sitting and cleaning staff. Citizens of only four countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines account for over 52% of the UAE population! During your stay, you have only a 10% chance that you will come across the local Emirati… It all makes the whole UAE, but Dubai in particular, a unique cultural mix.
Despite many changes in the UAE in recent years, you should keep in mind that this is still a muslim country. If you have any doubt how to act while in Dubai, the best rule is, ‘If you do not know how to behave, behave yourself’ 🙂 So, what to know about Dubai culture?
1. HOW TO DRESS IN DUBAI?
When I was packing, all these photos of women in long black robes (abayas) suddenly crossed my mind. Apparently, I am not the only one who having this association. Till now, people often ask me if I had to wear the head scarf (hijab)… How does it really look like? If you are going to the mall, knees and shoulders should be covered. I witnessed inappropriately dressed ladies being asked to leave at least 3 times. Writing inappropriately, I mean wearing super-shorty-shorts covering only half of but… On the other hand, ok, nobody in let’s say Germany would ask them to leave but hey! surely, there would be a lot of interest, looks and comments towards them 🙂
Outfit standards are one of the most important things to know before visiting Dubai. Bikini on the beach and by the pool is, of course, a normal thing. Low-cut and scanty dresses in the club as well. It seems to me that if you have doubts about how the dress, the best option is to think where you’ll go and with whom you’ll stay. If it is a hotel or a restaurant popular with foreigners, there is more flexibility. When you want to go to a real Arabic bazaar to experience Dubai culture, something more modest would be a reasonable choice, but this advice applies not only to the Emirates.
And what about abaya? If you are a girl, you’ll probably have to put it in one case – when visiting a mosque. It’s the part of Dubai culture, and muslim in general. I remember that in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi one Russian lady made a fuss that she should wear abaya there, shouting ‘this is too much!’. I looked at her outfit quickly – well, they also wouldn’t let her in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican, to be honest. If you don’t agree, just don’t enter 😉
2. CAN I FIND PORK IN DUBAI?
The second question is always about the pork. Surprisingly, many people want to know before visiting Dubai! How could you make it without the pork chops? Hmm, well, I don’t eat meat. If you can’t imagine your life without sausage – no fear, in Dubai you may find it in stores. True, not necessarily in the Arab neighborhoods, but I came across Polish sausage a few times in stores located in Dubai Marina, where many expats live. Finding a restaurant serving pork may actually be challenging, but it is also possible. However, in most cases, you will come across beef bacon (!).
Given the Dubai is a unique melting pot, the restaurants offer very extensive menu. They have to take into account the culinary tastes and religious restrictions of Arabs, Hindus, Europeans, Americans… You can imagine what it was like ordering pizza for my team, which comprised of people not eating pork (muslims), not eating beef (some colleagues from India), not eating anything that has eyes (some other colleagues from India) and eating everything (remaining colleagues from India and Europe plus the US). A good 40 minutes of taking orders.
3. CRUDE OIL MAKES THEM RICH, DOESN’T IT?
Dubai, in contrast to other Emirates, doesn’t base its power on crude oil (at least now). Dubai has always had lower oil reserves than neighbors, so the rulers of Dubai were forcing the greatest possible diversification of the economy. They focused efforts on investing primarily in tourism and financial services. The result was the creation of such architectural icons as the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa. What else besides nice buildings tourists like? Of course, shopping! In Dubai there are more than 70 shopping centers, and the whole month of January is dedicated to Dubai Shopping Festival. You can’t forget also about Emirates airlines, which in a very short time become one of the best in the world. Aviation sector alone contributes to almost 30% GDP of Dubai!
Also special zones in Dubai were set, which are dedicated to specific industries. So they established Dubai International Financial Center, Dubai Healthcare City, Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, etc. I find this idea kinda funny but also very good! 🙂 Today, it is the tourism, retail and financial services which bring the majority of overall profit to Dubai.
4. HEAT IS ENORMOUS, RIGHT? WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT DUBAI?
It is. I can’t deny it. Fortunately, not the all year round. At the beginning of April, it’s quite pleasant warm, which grows at an alarming rate till May. Frankly,I had 7 minutes walk from the hotel to the office, but when May began, I had to take several breaks along the way to rest… Even the hotel organized a bus to our buildings because people couldn’t make it!
On the other hand, you will often have the impression of poor visibility, because of sand hovering in the air. There may be more and more of it… until you don’t see anything. Yes, it’s a sand storm. I remember once I was driving a tiny Nissan Micra to Abu Dhabi during a sand storm and I was freaking out as my car was dancing on the road from side to side and I saw nothing… Another surprising thing to know before visiting Dubai.
If you have a choice, you should decide to go between October and April. The best time to visit Dubai is definitely December and January. In January, you can be lucky and see some rain! When it rains, the city goes through Armageddon – drivers aren’t familiar with such conditions so they drive in-sa-ne-ly. Better take the metro then! 🙂 Another argument for choosing this period is Ramadan – one month of fasting which, depending on the year, takes place between the end of April and July. The heat becomes even more annoying when you can’t even drink water in public 🙂 I think it’s one of the most important things to know before visiting Dubai during that period! Well, there is also a total prohibition!
5. CAN I DRINK ALCOHOL IN DUBAI?
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is available in Dubai. To purchase it in the store and be able to eat it at home, you have to have a special license (which must be approved by the employer!). Each emirate has its own license – i.e. if you have this issued in Dubai, you can’t get alcohol in other one. However, you can buy some booze in restaurants, hotels, clubs – apart from the hotels marked “dry” (they don’t serve liquor). This is a part of Dubai culture. Surprisingly, clubs in Dubai are a topic for a separate post – truly amazing! I have my favorite one, situated on the beach. That one is so so cool, I had the best parties ever there! Read more here.
Two remarks. Firstly, alcohol is very expensive. When I say very expensive, I mean it. One shot of bison grass vodka for 15 EUR and beer for 10 EUR. Secondly, I would advise you not to abuse these goodies. In each country, staggering drunk in the street isn’t welcome. Here you are in a Muslim country, where it’s even more stigmatized and theoretically you shouldn’t even wander around the city “under the influence” without the license (which I mentioned earlier). It’s another important thing to know before visiting Dubai and Dubai culture.
No one will chase you down the street with a breathalyzer to test whether you drank anything. But if it happens to you that when drunk you a) sleep on the sidewalk, b) are offensive to other people, c) simply don’t control yourself, don’t be surprised if soon the police goes after you. Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world, and being drunk in public is not tolerated. These dramatic news about penalties for foreigners under the influence usually have a second bottom – I saw a group of drunken English guys, who were jumping on the taxis hoods… Just know your limits.
Do you want to know something more about Dubai culture? Have a look at the best Dubai attractions or our secret spots there…
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