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Dress code in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Monday 18 February 2019 (UAE)   

Dress code in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Dubai and the UAE have varying degrees of tolerance to clothing styles from around the world and how to dress in the UAE. There are legal guidelines as to what is not acceptable, especially in Sharjah which has its own decency laws, but in general, residents, visitors, and tourists can mostly wear what they like within reason. If you like to reveal more flesh than commonly accepted in the office place, or like to wear what many would regard as extreme, offensive, or off-beat clothing, then it would be wise to tone down your dress code in the UAE, especially outside Dubai, and especially areas with a greater proportion of nationalities likely to be offended, and especially during Ramadan.

This information guide is generally intended for western expatriates and tourists since they are usually the ones who most commonly come into conflict with dress codes in the UAE. Arab citizens from GCC countries tend to wear similar clothing, and other Arabs and most Asians usually dress more conservatively than westerners anyway.

Consequences of not following the dress code in Dubai
  • If you are wearing something in Dubai that offends someone else who makes a point of telling you, we would suggest you very politely apologise, fix the offending item or at least say you will go and fix it immediately, and thank the person for pointing out the error of your ways.
  • If instead you want to make a point of telling them to poke their sticky beak somewhere else, then you should expect to end up in an argument which will quite possibly or probably result in the police being called.
  • It is unlikely they will arrest you for having an argument (unless it gets physical and/or obscene language is used), but they can arrest you for "offending public decency." Especially if the complainer is Muslim, and even more especially if they are Emirati (you are in the UAE after all, and Emiratis are citizens, not visitors).
  • The resulting outcome could well be a month or so in jail, followed by deportation.
  • As far as we can tell, the Dubai Police do not walk around shopping malls in Dubai looking for under-dressed visitors to arrest, but they are likely to respond to complaints (which is exactly what you'd expect the police to do anywhere).
Don't go shopping in your underwear in Dubai - Oct 2012
  • The Gulf News reported on 29 October 2012 that "An Emirati man was arrested on Sunday after he turned up at Dubai Mall wearing only his white cotton underwear." A photo showed the man standing on an escalator in Dubai Mall wearing only his white boxers or shorts, and shoes. He was with 4 friends who were also arrested, apparently for wearing inappropriate clothing although the same photo showed them more covered than the first chap.
  • Lt Colonel Ahmad Humaid Al Merri, director of the Criminal Investigation Department at Dubai Police, was quoted by the Gulf News as saying "The five accused are facing charges of indecent behaviour in public, ... Those men should have respect for the public and police will not accept their excuses that they did this for fun. The men were not bailed out by us and they are still under arrest and their case is now being handled by the Public Prosecutor."
Dress code in Dubai and UAE May-June 2012

In May 2012, a flurry of activity began on Twitter (hash-tag #uaedresscode, twitter handle @uaedresscode), complaining about the standard of dress of some residents and tourists, focused on women wearing short shorts or skirts, flimsy tops, and other clothing (or lack of it) which highlighted female body parts that some people find offensive when displayed publicly (men were also complained about but not so much). Newspapers in the UAE covered the discussion, usually with photographs of women in Dubai wearing skimpy clothes. It wasn't clear why newspapers wanted to publish photographs of women who had prompted the dress code discussion - perhaps they thought some readers didn't know what a short skirt looked like, or perhaps they wanted to try and annoy readers who might be offended at photographs of women wearing insufficient clothing in Dubai. UAE newspapers often publish photos of women wearing skimpy clothes anyway - usually for advertisements or because they want to draw attention to a woman wearing skimpy clothes for some other reason (actress, fashion model, females attending nightclubs in the UAE, and so on). One newspaper even has a weekly "HotSpot" or "Hot Spot" with a photograph of a hot ... er ... attractive young female living in the UAE (and often wearing skimpy clothes). Which leaves some residents confused about what newspaper editors really think about UAE culture with respect to dress codes.

  • 13 June 2012 - Gulf News reported that FNC member Hamad Ahmad Al Rahoumi recommended a dress code in the UAE, quoting him as saying "All Western countries enforce their laws on others when they come to work or visit their countries. For example, they have bans against the niqab, or face veil, and hijab, and this is their right. As as a result, the UAE has Arab and Islamic culture and traditions and others should respect them if they like to stay and visit our country."
  • 12 June 2012 (WAM) - The Federal National Council (FNC) recommended implementing a federal law in the UAE on decent behaviour in public places for foreigners, including a dress code that matches the local traditions and customs.
Dress code laws in UAE emirates (Gulf News 01 June 2012)
  • Abu Dhabi - according to Riad Al Kerdashi, lawyer and Court Advisor, "There is no law concerning dress code in the UAE, or penalty guidelines for being dressed indecently"
  • Dubai - an unnamed spokesperson from the Dubai Police Criminal Investigation Department was quoted as saying "No one usually tells people what to wear but residents and visitors dress decently out of respect, not because they are forced to do so by the law ... If a person's outfit or lack of clothing amounts to public indecency, such as when a person goes to a mall wearing no more than a swimming suit, for example, police will take action against that person." Other possible attire that could result in action by the police include wearing underwear to the beach, or being fully clothed at the beach - the same spokesperson said "People in swimming areas should not be wearing their full clothes and just watch others, because there are rules for going to the beach, and while undressing is not encouraged, so is staying fully dressed and watching or harassing other beachgoers."
  • Sharjah - decency law implemented in 2001 - no shorts or bare chests for men, no lungis or wezars (male underwear), and an unnamed Sharjah Police official was quoted saying "Women are prohibited from wearing clothes that expose their stomachs and their backs, short skirts above the knee, and also tight and transparent clothing that reveals the body."
Dress code in UAE for Emiratis and Gulf Nationals
  • Traditional GCC clothing is a black abaya for women, and a white kandura (dishdasha) for men (sometimes different colors are seen, especially in Oman).
  • Pubs, bars, nightclubs in Dubai and other emirates might deny entry to customers wearing traditional GCC attire, especially during Ramadan. The National reported on 09 November 2012 that A 1999 directive issued by Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing says: "Access to discotheques and dance clubs is forbidden to people wearing the national dress of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council." The report quoted an anonymous source as saying "If CID comes into my restaurant and someone in national dress is even standing at the bar, it is a fine of Dh10,000 to Dh15,000".
  • The story in The National was prompted by a report that some Emirati customers had been turned away from a brunch (with alcoholic drinks included in the price) at the Saffron restaurant at The Atlantis hotel in Dubai because they were wearing national dress. An anonymous hotel spokesman was quoted as saying "We had been following a directive regarding entry to guests in local dress to venues providing live entertainment. However, we have readdressed with both CID and DTCM, and have reconfirmed that this does not apply to brunch."
  • Traditional dress is also banned at a few other places in the UAE - usually for safety reasons. For example when skiing or snowboarding at Ski Dubai, some ten pin bowling alleys (some permit women in national dress but not men), jobs where employees are required to wear a uniform.
Wearing shorts in Dubai a risky business?
  • An odd news report was published by 7 Days on 10 April 2011 about the Filipino stand-up comedian Jonathan Garcia, otherwise known as Chokoleit, who was apparently detained by Dubai Police for 5 hours, and missed his flight out of Dubai as a result, for wearing shorts (or shorts that were too short perhaps) on 02 April 2011. He was quoted in the report as saying "My advice to visitors to the UAE is that ignorance of the law is no excuse for anyone. I was on the way to do some shopping before my flight home when my legs were sighted by the police."
  • It sounds odd because as any resident or tourist knows, men (or women) wearing shorts is hardly an uncommon sight in Dubai. And even very short shorts, although probably against the Dubai Decency Laws, usually seems to be tolerated anyway.
Wearing a bikini in a Dubai shopping mall

In August 2010, a British woman shopper at The Dubai Mall reportedly stripped down to her bikini after being dressed down about her dress sense by an Arab lady. Other reports said the Brit was wearing see-through clothing. Dubai Police were called, and there was a visit to the police station for both ladies apparently, but no charges were laid, or charges were laid but dropped.

See Dubai Mall bikini for more details.

What to wear and what not to wear in public in Dubai
  • In general, most "normal" clothing is tolerated as long as it is not too outrageous, however to be respectful of the UAE culture, it is better to cover knees and shoulders and everything in between. For example, t-shirts are fine but spaghetti tops for women might be frowned upon in more public areas (and on men will possibly get them arrested - for cross-dressing rather than it being too revealing). Very tight and/or low-cut tee-shirts are also more likely to offend some people. Females wearing strappy tops in Dubai shopping malls might get a warning although you'll see it's commonplace depending a bit on the shopping center. Mall of the Emirates seems to be more conservative than The Dubai Mall for example.
  • Women do not have to cover their hair, faces, heads with a scarf or similar in public. Some Muslim women do cover their hair and/or face, especially Gulf Arabs, but that is because of cultural and religious reasons, not because UAE law requires them to. However, when visiting a mosque, females do have to cover their hair, but it's not necessary for the face to be covered.
  • It is also not required for women to cover their bodies to hide their figure, such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Skirt length below or too the knee is fine. As skirts get shorter, the potential to cause offence increases. If short enough to reveal underwear (or that no underwear is being worn), the risk of male attention, police attention, arrest and fine increases.
  • Men wearing normal shorts might get an odd look in some places but are unlikely to get into trouble. Ideally, shorts should be down to the knee to be sure of causing no offence. Very short shorts (stubbies?), cycling shorts that reveal certain contours, boxer shorts, etc are possibly going to result in a warning from the authorities. Cycling while wearing cycling shorts should be fine.
  • Men should not wear women's clothing, being arrested is quite possible. Wearing a Scottish kilt however is probably acceptable on special occasions. It would probably be wise not to wear one as everyday clothing to work, to a shopping center, a walk around the block etc.
  • Sports clothing appropriate to the sport being played is fine at the sports venue. And combinations like shorts and tshirts are not likely to be a problem if worn elsewhere on the way to or from the sports location.
  • At the beach and swimming pools (hotel or private), wear what you like as long as breasts (for women), genital area, and bum is covered. Bikinis are fine, topless is not, thongs are not. Also unacceptable is wearing see-through swimsuits and/or underwear.
  • If going from beach to a more public area such as a shopping mall, cover up, at least between knees and shoulders.
  • Young children can wear what they like for the most part but don't have them running around naked in public. Teenage girls and boys should be more circumspect with what they wear. Mothers and fathers with 16 year old daughters are probably going to have more disagreements about clothing than they would if they were living somewhere in Europe or North America.
  • Don't wear anything that might be regarded as offensive. For example tee shirts with offensive slogans or pictures, obscene language or gestures, anything that might cause religious or cultural offence, etc. If you have to ask whether it's acceptable or not, assume it isn't. And if you genuinely think something is not offensive to UAE culture when it is, then it probably isn't a good idea for you to live in or visit the UAE - you're bound to annoy the authorities one way or another sooner or later, resulting in a combination of arrest, fine, jail, deportation.
What to wear to other locations in Dubai
  • When visiting any sort of government office or vaguely related location (visa, driving licence, hospital), it's respectful to dress more conservatively. Occasionally, women who dress more provocatively get bureaucratic procedures done more smoothly, but that's because they've managed to be served by a male who responds to such decoration, not because the cultural expectations in the UAE have suddenly changed.
  • Visiting a mosque requires that you dress according to the cultural and religious expectations. For tourists, expats, residents visiting somewhere like the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, or the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai, that means long trousers for men, and hair and legs covered for women. Sometimes there will be scarves available at the mosque.
  • Dress code is more relaxed for bars, nightclubs, concerts, events where alcohol is served, events where there is a greater proportion of western nationalities. Although as is the case in most countries, men wearing shorts and flip flops will be denied entry to nightclubs and most bars, but women wearing short skirts and flip flops will be welcomed enthusiastically.
  • Going topless or naked at somewhere like the Dubai Rugby 7s (yes, it has happened), is likely to get you arrested. Police tolerance of western excesses at such events only stretches so far.
What to wear to work in Dubai
  • Women can usually wear much the same clothing as they'd wear to a similar job in their home country, although anything extreme should be toned down a bit. You'll see shortish skirts, tight tops, etc in many places. However, check with the company before arriving about any special rules, or be conservative when you first arrive until it's clear what is acceptable.
  • Males in most indoor and outdoor environments would be expected to wear long trousers. Shorts are only seen on swimming pool attendants, tennis coaches, etc. A collared shirt (short or long sleeve) would be standard in most cases, depending on the job. A tie is commonplace, and expected in many jobs. A suit or jacket not so much - check with the company.

A note about the climate - natural fabrics (cotton, linen, wool) suit many people better than artificial fabrics (polyester) due to the ability to "breathe" better. Some people may like to keep something warm handy for the office - the A/C can be quite cool in many places.

What to wear in other emirates
  • Abu Dhabi - is a bit more conservative than Dubai. Men wearing shorts are likely to stand out more, same with women wearing short skirts, tight t-shirts, and/or strappy tops. Arrest is still unlikely but a warning or comment is more likely.
  • Ras Al Khaimah - slightly more conservative than Abu Dhabi. Probably not by intention, just as a consequence of a smaller number of westerners. In the expat / foreign owned property developments, things are less conservative.
  • Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain - more conservative than Abu Dhabi. Westerners with uncovered shoulders and knees will stand out, and might be made to feel uncomfortable. Unknown what the risk of warning, arrest, or fine is. Normal beach clothing at the beach should be fine.
  • Sharjah - has strict decency laws about what to wear (introduced in 2001?). Apparently knees and shoulders must be covered for both men and women, however, it's clear when walking through a Sharjah shopping mall that the actual tolerance level is higher than what is expected by law. Nevertheless, Sharjah rules can be inconsistent and surprising at the best of times, so it's probably a good idea to be more circumspect if living in or visiting Sharjah. Men are also not supposed to wear jewellery such as earrings, necklaces, and bangles. Unknown if a Prince Albert falls into the disallowed category.
  • Sharjah also doesn't like long hair for men - 4 young long-haired male members of a local rock band had their ID cards taken by the Sharjah Police, and were told to report to Sharjah Police HQ where they had mugshot photographs taken, and then received a haircut. An officer at the Sharjah Criminal Investigation Department (CID) apparently said "Long hair is strictly prohibited for men. If we catch any man with long hair, we will have his hair cut." Reported in the Gulf News 12 August 2010.
  • In towns and villages away from the bright city lights, people with naked legs and shoulders will stand out much more, and might be confronted about their dress sense. However, doing a bit of desert driving (dune bashing) in shorts and t-shirts is acceptable.
Dress code during Ramadan
  • During Ramadan it is important to be more respectful. Men wearing shorts and women with uncovered shoulders in Dubai will probably still not be arrested but it would be prudent to be more considerate of Emirati culture and religion.
  • In other emirates during Ramadan you really should cover those knees and shoulders.
Don't run naked at the beach
  • On 04 July 2010, a British man appeared in the Abu Dhabi Court of Misdemeanours and pleaded not guilty to violating public decency. The court case was adjourned.
  • He had been arrested on 16 June 2010 when his swimsuit allegedly fell off, and held in jail until his court appearance. His lawyer, Faiza Moussa, said his bathing suit fell off "because the water was moving fast back and forth". It was not made clear whether the fast back and forth motion of the water was due to the weather, or something the man was doing. Perhaps his lawyer didn't know.
Wearing t-shirts in Dubai with pictures of naked women on them
  • In June 2009, Raffi Nernekian discovered that wearing a t-shirt in Dubai with a photo of a nude Victoria Beckham on it results in a one month jail sentence for offending public decency, followed by deportation (reported in The Telegraph (UK) on 25 June 2009).
  • Mr Nernekian was arrested after an argument with an Emirati man who had approached him in a bakery in Dubai to point out that his t-shirt was inapproriate.
  • The item of clothing was a Marc Jacobs skin cancer awareness tshirt with the slogan "Protect the skin you're in" on it. The letter 'Y' in just the spot you'd expect it to be, and Ms Beckham's breasts obscured by her hands.
Last update Sunday 15-Dec-2013. Page development 4L 5C.
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