Packing for my one-week visit to Dubai this past December was a logistical nightmare. The trip was sandwiched between visits to various Eastern European cities so I had to pack for those freezing climates and the hot temperatures of Dubai in one carryon suitcase and a backpack. As if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, I also had no idea what was appropriate to wear in Dubai. My trip to this hot spot in the United Arab Emirates was going to be my first time in a Middle Eastern country, and although I had heard many stories of how modern and progressive Dubai was, I wanted to be sure that I was respectful of their local customs.
So I hopped on Google to do some research, and what I got was a mixture of conflicting advice that confused me more than it helped me. I found everything from “Wear whatever you want!” to “Cover yourself up!” After speaking with my friend who lives in Dubai and would be hosting me at her house, I chose a happy medium between the two extremes, packed my bags and headed out for my trip.
Once I got to Dubai, it didn’t take me too long to realize why there was no unanimous advice on the dress code of the city. Dubai is a land of contrasts for many reasons, and the unspoken and spoken rules of its dress code are the perfect example of that. So if you find yourself packing for a trip to the home of the world’s biggest mall, here are a few things to keep in mind when picking out your wardrobe.
At the souks, malls and everything in between
The famously large malls of Dubai are a few of the places in the city that do have an official policy on what constitutes as an appropriate outfit. They’re also the places where you will see the dress code very blatantly disregarded, especially by foreigners. If you want to be respectful, however, while also avoiding the albeit unlikely but still potentially mortifying situation of having a security guard confront you about your clothing, just cover up. For women that means wearing shirts that cover the shoulders and pants or skirts that cover the knees. For men that means no muscle tanks or short shorts. Yep, men have to cover their knees too.
Although there might not be any signs officially notifying people of the dress code in other public areas like the souks, supermarkets or cafes, your best bet would be to follow the same rules in those places as well. That way you’ll surely be respectful and also not draw any unwanted stares or attention. On most days during my trip to Dubai, I just wore jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt. If my shirt was sleeveless I brought a light cardigan. Most places have the air conditioning blasting so high that you’ll be happy to be protected from the cold with a little extra clothing anyway.
At the beach or by the pool
Sometimes the artificially cool air of the AC just won’t do the trick to cool you down quite like a nice dip in the water will. Since there aren’t many options in terms of “modest swimwear,” ladies, you have the green light to bust out those bikinis in Dubai. Just leave your Brazilian-style thong bikini at home, and don’t even think about sunbathing topless because that’s illegal. As much as it pains me to write it, this also means that men can wear their favorite speedos at the beach or by the pool. Whether or not any man should actually wear speedos is an entirely different debate, but the option is at least available and acceptable in Dubai.
Where things can get tricky is in the transition from the water to your hotel or to one of the many seaside restaurants. You’ll often see people in their short shorts, tank tops, sheer cover-ups or even just their bathing suits, but leaving the water and walking around means you should cover up again, especially if you plan on going inside anywhere. This is not South Beach, Miami, people. Although you may be in an area surrounded mostly by tourists, remember that many of those tourists come from the surrounding Emirates and other surrounding countries, which tend to be more conservative than Dubai. Again, it is a matter of respect.
For the ladies I suggest a maxi dress because they’re easy to slip on and off with a damp bathing suit. For the men just throw those t-shirts back on and if you’re wearing speedos, please for all of our sakes put on some shorts! Can you tell I really don’t like speedos?
At the mosques
If you plan on visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi (and you really should do so), this is the one place where the dress code should be absolutely and completely respected. You may be just a visitor, but it is still a place of worship for many other people. I would try to describe the dress code myself, but I believe the actual sign from in front of the mosque does it best.
If you don’t have any clothes that would fit this standard, the mosque provides abayas for the women and kandourahs for the men to borrow. These can be worn over whatever clothes you already have on. Smaller mosques may only be able to provide headscarves for women to cover their hair so keep that in mind if you plan to visit a different mosque. Whichever mosque you do decide to visit, you can also expect to remove your shoes before going inside.
At the desert safari
Of all the fun activities I did while in Dubai, the desert safari was definitely my favorite. (Click here to read about my experience plus some tips) It’s very popular amongst tourists in Dubai so you can expect to be with people from all over the world. On the safari, there’s a lot more leeway when it comes to what is acceptable to wear. Shorts and tank tops are fine, although honestly, I wouldn’t recommend them. You’ll be riding camels, sand-boarding, riding four-wheel ATVs and then sitting on rugs in the sand for dinner and a show. Maybe it’s just me, but I would not be comfortable doing all that with shorts on. Loose or stretchy pants are great or even leggings. Basically anything that allows for range of motion so you can comfortably sit on the floor. Jeans would not do that for me, but maybe that just means I need new jeans.
As for the top you choose, keep in mind that in the desert it does get cold at night. I wore a short-sleeved shirt and immediately regretted not having a cardigan or light sweater to put on once the sun went down. Luckily I had a scarf that doubled as a shawl, but a sweater would have been much better. That change in temperature is also another reason to consider not wearing shorts. I saw some poor, unfortunate women suffering in the cold that night because they had shorts on. Don’t make the same mistakes we did.
At the bars or nightclubs
If I were to show you a picture of a bar/nightclub in Dubai versus one from the U.S. or Europe or pretty much anywhere in the world, you’d notice that the partygoers look basically the same. Short dresses, mini skirts, cleavage, high heels, fancy suits, ties, button up shirts, you’ll find it all at a bar/nightclub in Dubai. Getting alcohol in Dubai is not easy for anyone not even for bars or restaurants. Most places that bother to get the special license required to serve alcohol are hotels. This means that most bars and nightclubs are found inside these chic hotels, which in turn means that the people who go there tend to be well dressed. Of course, what would be appropriate to wear in terms of dress and heels or suit versus jeans with a nice blouse or button up shirt depends on the exact bar or nightclub. What you don’t have to worry about, however, is maintaining the same rules of modesty that apply to other public places.
Like I said before, Dubai is a land of contrasts and a lot of that has to do with the mixing of cultures there. After all, between 70 and 80% percent of the population are expats so this is to be expected. The truth is that you will see TONS and TONS of people blatantly disregard the dress code standards I mentioned here. I’m not saying that visitors should wear an abaya or kandourah, but a little care in covering up goes a long way. I would be lying if I said I had my shoulders completely covered at all times, but I tried my best to be modest.
For those who do choose to ignore the spoken and unspoken standards, nothing will happen to them. At most they may get a few extra stares or in the worst-case scenario, a security guard at the mall might tell them to cover up. In essence, it’s really not that big of a deal. There are no real consequences, but personally, I would feel strange walking around in my short shorts while many of the women around me cover up from head to toe. To me, even if I can get away with flaunting whatever I want, I wouldn’t do that because it’s simply disrespectful. In my humble opinion, respect is always of the utmost importance but even more so when traveling.
Be sure to check out some of my other Dubai-related posts for even more tips and tricks to enjoy your trip!