When we first booked our flights to Dubai one of my initial questions was ‘what am I going to wear?’. Not knowing much about the country or the culture, one thing I did know is that the women tend to cover up. So I was imagining I needed to wear long sleeved top and dresses or pants down to my ankles to avoid any stares or criticism. Was I going to have to buy an entire new wardrobe?
After consulting with a friend who lives in Abu Dhabi, I was assured I didn’t need every part of my skin covered and that the country is actually pretty liberal. Sure enough, when we touched down into Dubai, women and men were dressed in ‘normal’ outfits as well as the traditional Emiratis attire.
Traditional Emiratis Attire
Arabian women can be seen wearing a long black robe over their clothing called an abaya with a hijab which is head-scarf coving the neck and most of the head. Occasionally you will see some women draping the hijab over their face so not part is visible. The niqab is worn to cover the women’s face excluding the eyes. This robe is only removed when at home or when they are in the presence of only women.
Men are also seen to wear a robe, but only in white, which is referred to as a gandoora, dish-dasha or taub. They also wear a headscarf, known as a keffiyeh, which is also traditionally white and held together by a agal. Some Bedouin tribes however, deviate from white and where a coloured headscarf.
What to wear in the UAE
Dubai of all places in the UAE is probably the most cosmopolitan and is full of expats living and working there. You will find all the big fashion brands in the department stores from the high end Gucci and Prada to the high street H&M, Zara and Gap. All selling the same clothing they would sell in other parts of the world.
Having said that, it is still wise to be respectful when it comes to the Arab culture and that includes your choice of clothing. So here is my advice when it comes to what to wear in the UAE.
It’s best to avoid anything too short in regards to shorts, skirts or dresses and anything too low when it comes to the neck line of your tops. Although you will see some women in short skirts and strappy, tight fitting tops with a whole lot of cleavage, it’s not really the norm and they do tend to be looked at and not for the right reasons.
Most women tend to dress modestly in conservative yet fashionable clothing and it’s not too dissimilar to what I would have worn in Melbourne. Jeans, shirts, short sleeved blouses, skirts or dresses just below the knee etc. You also need to remember, whilst it is hot, everywhere indoors is cool, so if you are in a little summer dress, you are going to freeze as soon as you walk inside.
If you are heading to a mosque, for example the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, you need to dress covered head to toe in loose fitting clothing and a head scarf. Alternatively, you can use one of the free abaya available at the mosque.
All the private beaches and pool areas at resorts are also very liberal with women wearing bikinis or one piece swim suits. It is when you go to the local beaches you should consider dressing more conservatively or you will be stared at. I wore my bikinis under a cotton t-shirt dress (yes, into the water too) to avoid the stares mostly from the local men. At some beaches, such as Al Bateen Beach in Abu Dhabi, they have built a wall to separate the women and children from the main beach. If you don’t feel comfortable wearing your clothing whilst swimming or want to sunbake at a local beach without feeling out of place (and not pay for it), setting up camp behind the wall is a good option.
Most of the men also dress conservatively with shirts or t-shirts and pants or long shorts below the knees. Men don’t get around in tank tops or the trendy short shorts, which we saw plenty of when we travelled around South East Asia. At mosques and also some hotels such as the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, men are required to wear pants and either a t-shirt or shirt.
They do get off lightly when it comes to going to a local beach as men can happily swim and walk on the beach with just board shorts on. Best to probably leave your budgey smugglers (aka speedos) at home though unless you head to a resort.
What to wear in the UAE is really not as daunting as you expect. I was much more aware of my clothing and covering up in India than I was travelling in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. If you dress modestly and not like you are living in a beachside resort in Bali, or hitting the night clubs, then you will not receive any negative attention. It is also, in my opinion, correct to respect the culture you are travelling to no matter how many expats are living there.