It was my very first time visiting the UAE two weeks ago and I didn’t know what to expect. Since the days leading up to my two week trip, I’ve been researching so much about the United Arab Emirates as far as local customs and laws. After returning from my two week vacation in the UAE, I was infatuated with the culture and spent days reading about the Middle East, Muslim faith, and even as far as learning some basic Arabic. Here are 30 Things Tourists Should Know About the United Arab Emirates:
1. It’s really hot in the UAE during the summer – When I was driving around in the United Arab Emirates last week, temperatures reached as high as 51C which is 123.8F. When you factor in 80-100% humidity in oceanside emirates, it was hotter than that!
2. There is no dress code in the UAE – You can wear whatever you want although if you do visit a mosque, a female must have their hair covered with a head scarf and males must wear pants (T-shirt and jeans are okay). If you’re in a mall, you might want to reconsider wearing a spaghetti strap tank top or your bikini because local Emiratis can call the cops on you. Although you will receive a warning, I heard it doesn’t happen often.
3. Local Emiratis only make up 10-15% of the UAE – That means 85%-90% of the population is composed of expatriates. The UAE is a melting pot of cultures comprised of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Iranians, Afghanis, Filipinos, Thai, Chinese, Koreans, Europeans, Australians, and Latin Americans.
4. Emirati citizens are rare – The only way you can be an Emirati is if you were born there from Emirati parents. If you’re a Western expatriate living in Dubai and you have a baby in the UAE, your child is not considered an Emirati and won’t even be considered a local.
5. Emiratis receive a lot of benefits from the government - Benefits include receiving free education up to a PHD level and free health care. If the health care isn’t good enough in the UAE, His Highness will pay for you to travel and receive the best treatment elsewhere. Emiratis also receive a free house and discounted utilities when they’re married.
6. The UAE is a tax free haven – This is why many people come to Dubai to conduct business. No taxes on your salary.
7. The prices are all in – There is no such thing as a sales tax in the UAE. What you see is what you pay with the exception of a restaurant, where a tip is usually given for service.
8. The customary tip is 10% in restaurants – Service workers are one of the lowest paid professions in the UAE and tipping 10 is customary in restaurants. Some will say that a 15-20% tip is unheard of, but do what you want if the service is exceptional.
9. Speed trap cameras are everywhere – Be careful driving in Dubai since these cameras are equipped with radar. If you’re driving over the speed limit, the camera will flash and you will receive a ticket in the mail.
10. Don’t run a red light – If you’re caught running a red light in Dubai, you will have to pay a hefty fine of 1600 dirhams ($435 USD) and/or your car will be impounded for 15 days.
11. There are 7 emirates in the UAE – Aside from the popular tourist emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there are five other emirates which is Ajman, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah (RAK), Fujairah, and Umm al-Quwain (UAQ).
12. There is no public sale of alcohol in the UAE – You won’t be able to order alcohol from the menu of restaurants (with the exception of hotel restaurants). The menu will be comprised of Mocktails (cocktails with no alcohol). Alcohol is only sold to guests of the hotel and can only be served in hotel restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
13. Nightclubs are inside of hotels – The reason why nightclubs are inside hotels is because alcohol can only be sold to guests of the hotel. The prices are pretty ridiculous as well.
14. You can’t drive if you consume alcohol – If your Blood Alcohol level is more than 0.0000% and you’re caught driving, your car will be impounded and you will be sent to jail. There is absolutely no tolerance for drinking and driving in the UAE.
15. You can get a fine for putting on make-up while driving – The fine is 1,000 dirhams ($272 USD) if you are caught putting make-up while driving in the UAE. According to Emirates 24|7 news, “The new violation will also include men combing their hair, or adjusting their traditional Arabic head-gear while driving”.
16. Don’t drive in the fast lane – If you’re caught slowing down traffic in the fast lane (left lane), you will be honked at, high beamed, and tailgated. This is the driving culture in the UAE.
17. It’s a crime to have sex outside of marriage – Yes, it’s illegal to have sexual intercourse outside of marriage and it’s considered adultery. This is UAE law and applies to everyone including local Emiratis, tourists, Westerners, and expatriates. The courts are filled with these complaints and imprisonment is the sentence.
18. It’s a crime to be intoxicated in public – You cannot be visibility intoxicated or drunk in public and it will result in imprisonment.
19. Friday and Saturday is considered the weekend – Thursday night in the UAE is basically the equivalent of Friday night for Westerners. Sunday is a regular working day in the UAE.
20. Friday is prayer day – This means most businesses close and open up in the late afternoon (if you’re lucky they’re opened in the first place).
21. One missed turn can be a nightmare – If you’re driving around in the UAE (especially Dubai) and you miss a turn, it can cause an additional 10 minutes to your commute. This is due to the fact that the roads are horribly designed and could take five minutes to make a U-turn.
22. The UAE loves roundabouts – I was driving in the UAE for a week and I’ve never driven on so many roundabouts. I didn’t like it at first, but now I realize the beauty of roundabouts and the neglect of a signal light.
23. You need a liquor license to purchase alcohol – I mentioned earlier that alcohol is mostly consumed inside of hotels, but there are liquor stores in the UAE. I found liquor stores in Ajman, but you’ll need a liquor license to buy alcohol. Yes, the UAE is Muslim country and it’s very strict on alcohol consumption.
24. Censoring in the UAE – Yes, the United Arab Emirates does censor websites on the internet. The UAE is a Muslim country, so gambling and pornography is “offensive” to the religious, moral, and cultural values. You will find these sites blocked, but a simple VPN can get you around this easily.
25. There are no casinos in the UAE – Some people like to say that Dubai is like the Las Vegas of the Middle East. I find that statement quite far-fetched as Dubai is NOTHING like Las Vegas.
26. Prostitution is outlawed – The UAE bans prostitution, but you can still find many female expatriates (particularly Russian and Asians) selling their body. This happens mostly in hotel lobbies, hotel bars, and nightclubs inside the hotel.
27. The food is amazing – You can find Middle Eastern food mostly everywhere and it includes Indian, Lebanese, Pakistani, and Iranian cuisine. The prices range from dirt cheap blue collar Coffee shops and hole in the wall restaurants to expensive 7 star Burj Al Arab cuisine. I had Arabic mezze (cold dishes), but I ate mostly hummus, kebabs, and biryani. By the way, you won’t find pork for sale since it’s against Muslim culture to eat pork. However you will find beef bacon and other varieties of look-alike bacon, but some hotels will serve pork bacon which is rare.
28. To visit the Burj al Arab, you must stay or eat there – The Burj al Arab is Dubai’s iconic 7 star (only 7* in the world) hotel. The gated entrance is heavily guarded by security and the public is forbidden from visiting. However, if you’re staying there as a hotel guest, you can take pictures all you want. The public can get around this by having an advance meal reservation at the hotel’s restaurant.
29. Clothing and Designer Brands are expensive – Everything is super expensive in the Mall of Emirates and the Dubai Mall. You can find all the same brands in the United States for a much cheaper price. Expats don’t even shop there.
30. Malls are your best friends – People really don’t go to the mall to shop. In fact, if you notice – not many people have shopping bags in their hands. The malls function as a cooling safe haven to escape from the outside heat. In other parts of the world, the place to meet your friends is the nearby town square. In Dubai and most of the UAE, it’s the local mall where people hang out and grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat with friends. The malls in the UAE are fascinating as this is where you can find the local Emirati citizens and it’s a place to see and be seen.
Even though I’ve been recently infatuated with the UAE and Middle East in general, I won’t be making a return trip to the UAE anytime soon since I’m totally burned out (literally) at the moment. I still have trips planned for Latin American (which I absolutely am in love) and Eastern Europe. I’m debating about visiting other Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait next summer.