What to wear when visiting the United Arab Emirates might be the number one concern of people planning their family travel there. While it is important to be mindful of what you wear in certain times and places, it is not as “scary” as many think. Here are my guidelines for friends and family traveling to the UAE, and now you…my travel family.
1. The UAE is hot outside the majority of the year, April through October. Light colors and natural fibers do very well if you're visiting in the hotter time of year. Likewise, the malls are very well air conditioned, so a sweatshirt, shawl or shrug carried in your purse would come in handy.
2. Dress decently out of respect in the UAE, not because you are forced by laws. Rethink the plunging necklines and high slit skirts
3. Thank someone who might have pointed out discomfort with your attire and address the clothing “offense” when you can. Don't get in a fight about it, because that is something which can lead to police being called…it's not worth it. You're in their country, respect it.
4. There's a difference between indecency, like wearing a swimsuit to the mall where the police will get involved, and wearing shorts that come above the knee. Think of your surroundings and dress accordingly.
5. Ramadan dress more conservatively during this time. Traditional Islam rule is that ankle to shoulders are covered.
6. No underwear is allowed as swimming attire at the beach and water parks. Along the same lines, people who are fully clothed sitting at swimming beaches are a cause of suspicion to police, as they are gawking at those in swim attire.
7. Cover your knees and shoulders out of respect; it's the safest and easiest rule to follow. If you must wear tanktops and spaghetti straps, have a shawl, shrug or scarf handy.
8. Women do not have to cover their hair (never their face) unless they are visiting the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai or other religious venues. Men should be in trousers and sleeved shirts in these scenarios.
9. Stay away from offensive slogan and logo t-shirts.
10. Dress more conservatively when going to government buildings and hospitals. Again, think covered knees and shoulders.
11. Abu Dhabi is a bit more conservative than Dubai; Ras Al Khaimah a bit more conservative than Abu Dhabi (not in expat residences such as Al Hamra Village and Mina Al Arab); Ajman/Fujairah/Umm Al Quwain are more conservative than Abu Dhabi (you will stand out more with bare shoulders and above the knee outfits;, Sharjah has conflicting information but is known as the most conservative area of the UAE (better be safe than sorry and dress conservatively).
In short, the UAE is a Muslim country. While there is a high percentage of non-Muslim expats living here, it does not give permission to disrespect this country and its culture. To this day, I will only wear tank tops and above the knee attire when in expat housing communities, club houses, in the desert and on the beaches and premises of hotels. Otherwise, my shoulders and knees will always be covered anywhere I go, such as Dubai Mall, my local market, and doctor's appointments.