Dubai is the most relaxed of all the emirates, but it's also a traditional Muslim society. The emirate is aware of its tourists and their needs to wear relaxed and cool clothes, but visitors and residents alike are encouraged to at least cover up a little when entering public places and shopping malls. It is suggested that you cover your shoulders, not the entire arm, and aim to wear shorts or skirts that hit around the knee. It is simply polite in a society where bare flesh is frowned upon. Men are also expected to dress decently and appropriately (sleeveless shirts and tank tops are bad ideas), but there are no strict rules. Shorts, bathing suits and bikinis are fine in hotel pool areas and at private beaches, but topless sunbathing for women is definitely a no-no, and one-piece bathing suits are recommended on public beaches.
Muslims fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The dates change slightly each year depending on the sighting of the new moon. As a sign of respect, non-Muslims are also required by law to refrain from eating, drinking, chewing gum, dancing, singing and smoking in public places during daylight hours. Much of the city shuts down during this time (food and drink outlets are closed in the day, except select ones in hotels), so keep this in mind if your planned visit coincides with Ramadan. However, the city comes to life in the evenings, when all the restaurants reopen with extended working hours into the night.
Friday is the official day of rest and prayer for this Muslim city. Thursday and Friday used to be the official weekend days—the equivalent of Saturday and Sunday in other countries. To facilitate efficiency with other parts of the world, however, the government changed the weekend to Friday and Saturday. Thus, Sunday is a working day in Dubai, which is a bit of a shift for most Westerners.
As Dubai is a Muslim country, the government does not encourage alcohol consumption, but its international approach means that alcohol is still available to non-Muslims. It is served only in restaurants linked to hotels and in the few free-standing restaurants that have managed to secure the necessary license. There are only two retail suppliers for alcohol, MMI and African Eastern, with outlets conveniently but discreetly located around the city. To purchase from these shops, you must have an alcohol license, which is available only to residents working in Dubai. There is also a 30% tax on retail alcohol, so do make use of the airport duty-free zone to do your bottle shopping upon arrival in the U.A.E. You are allowed to take four liters into the country with you.
Western expats often claim that they feel far safer in Dubai than they do in their home cities, and abuse or threats stemming from U.S. and British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are virtually unheard of.
With regard to nonpolitical hazards, Dubai officials boast that their city is crime-free, but it's still a good idea to take commonsense precautions. Many of the people in Dubai are very poor, and petty thievery does occur occasionally, so don't let your guard down. It can occur anywhere, but especially stay away from the poorer neighborhoods. Always carry a copy of your passport and visa, particularly at night, in case Dubai's vigilant police ask to see them.
Dubai is perfectly safe during the day, but women traveling alone at night should be prepared for occasional harassment, when parts of the city turn into unofficial red-light zones. Keep your common sense with you, don't dress too provocatively and try not to stray into quiet areas. Always keep an eye on handbags, especially in crowded bars and shopping areas. Man or woman, you should never travel alone in the desert—it's always best to go with a local tour operator or at least in two cars, because even if your off-road skills are excellent, getting stuck on a dune is very common.
Because of its Muslim roots, Dubai is not a gay-friendly destination, and public homosexual behavior could result in prosecution. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, even illegal between men and women, so try to refrain from kissing or even holding hands in public (however, even though homosexuality is illegal, men holding hands is a very common sight).
For more information, contact your country's travel-advisory agency.
Dubai has a wide range of excellent hospitals, covering many specializations. Depending on your emergency, you should seek out the major hospitals, such as Rashid Hospital or the American Hospital, where they are equipped to deal with true accidents and emergencies. Many private clinics call themselves hospitals, but few have triage departments and are ill-equipped to see you if you have a bleeding cut or broken bone.
Sanitation is generally excellent in the main tourist areas of the city; the less touristy parts of town are a bit more basic. Tap water is considered safe, but most people drink bottled water. Food in hotels and most restaurants is quite safe to eat. Be a little more wary of food sold from street vendors: Steer clear of outdoor buffets, where food might have been sitting in the hot sun for too long—this is the most common cause of food poisoning in Dubai.
Vaccinations are not required if you're staying in the city or traveling with a recognized tour operator, but if you're going to visit desolate desert villages on your own, it would be wise to have a cholera vaccination. If you travel into the desert, be sure to take toilet paper, lots of bottled water and soap—facilities are scarce.
One of the biggest health dangers in Dubai is the sun: Make sure you stock up on sunblock. Pack a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and remember to drink plenty of water. If you're planning to travel in the mountainous areas of the country, you may want to consider mosquito repellent and possibly malaria medication, though there have been no reported cases of malaria in Dubai or the Emirates.
Medical facilities in Dubai are excellent but extremely expensive. Make sure you have health insurance and/or travel health insurance to cover any costs. Most medical and emergency personnel speak English. Four- and five-star hotels usually have English-speaking doctors on 24-hour call. In smaller hotels, the concierge will be able to arrange medical assistance from the nearest hospital (there are 26 located throughout the city). Dial 998 or 999 for ambulance and emergency services. The American Hospital Dubai (phone 04-377-6699, http://www.ahdubai.com/main/index.aspx) offers 24-hour emergency services, inpatient and outpatient facilities, including family medicine and dental.
If you'd prefer your medical care to come to you, House Calls: Dubai Healthcare City is available daily 24 hours. Phone 800-HEALTH (432584). http://www.dhcc.ae.
For more information, contact your country's health-advisory agency.
Dubai is surprisingly well-equipped when it comes to visitors with physical limitations, with all shopping malls and main hotels offering dedicated parking, easy access, lifts, ramps and accessible restrooms throughout. The Dubai Metro and the buses are fully equipped to cater to visitors with disabilities, and special taxis can be ordered to fit wheelchairs (phone 04-208-0808).
The airport terminal has electric carts and wheelchairs available, and some of the bigger four- and five-star hotels have specially designed rooms for guests with special needs. All shopping malls have ramps and elevators, and you'll find the staff generally very helpful. Older sites are not accessible to people with disabilities. Most people in Dubai are willing to help if needed.
DOS & DON'TS
Do tip generously in bars, restaurants and taxis for good service—waiters and drivers are paid a pittance and are hugely appreciative of the extra cash. But be sure to check if the establishment you are visiting incorporates the tip into the billed price, as some automatically do.
Do greet Gulf Arabs with a friendly "salaam aleikum." They will appreciate the gesture and be far more likely to chat with you or help you out.
Don't try to initiate conversations with Gulf Arabs about or with female members of their family, the legitimacy of their political system or the situation in Israel—these are all flashpoint subjects that could quickly sour the atmosphere.
Don't try to shake hands with female Emiratis if you're a man. They will usually refuse to do so, leaving you with your hand extended and looking foolish. Only offer your hand if she first extends hers.
Do ask permission before taking pictures of locals or other people; many cultures are very sensitive to having their photo taken.
Do steer clear of illegal drugs—Dubai's drug policy is unrelentingly harsh, and anyone caught in possession of or with even a trace of drugs in the bloodstream is liable to receive a prison sentence of several years.
Don't kiss your partner in public—it's illegal in parts of the U.A.E. and could earn you a scolding from police or even lead to arrest. There have been several high-profile incidents that have led to jail terms for those involved. Other signs of affection are discouraged too—it's best just to keep your hands to yourself.
Do use public transport—it gives you an entirely different perspective of the city; it’s cheap and safe; and it allows you to feel like one of the myriad people who live and work in Dubai instead of being a visitor in a taxi looking in from the outside.
Don't lose your temper and gesture with your middle finger. This is a hundred times more offensive in Arab than in Western cultures and could lead to imprisonment.
Do avoid any public displays of drunkenness. It only takes one local to see you and get upset and you could land in trouble with the police. It is illegal to drink anywhere outside licensed premises, so also avoid carrying any alcohol you may have purchased in the hotel.