6 Things to Know Before Going to the UAE
Traveling to the Middle East for the first time can be intimidating. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are more Western than you’d expect, but there are still a few lines you shouldn’t cross when visiting.
Even though the United Arab Emirates is part of the Middle East, it’s one of the safest and most Western countries in the region. You’ll even find Starbucks and Shake Shack in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the small country’s two largest cities!
Still, some things are taboo, and some things you’d expect to be off-limits aren’t. Here’s the travel etiquette you need to know before visiting the UAE.
1. Almost Everyone Speaks English
Not only was the UAE a British protectorate from the late 1800s through 1968 but once the country gained independence, it paid for qualified Emirates to attend colleges anywhere in the world. Quite a few chose to study in English-speaking schools like Harvard and Yale.
As a result, most Emirate speak English, and most signs you see, including street and building signs, are in English.
2. Women Can Wear Shorts
Unlike other Middle Eastern countries, the UAE allows women to wear Western clothes in most public places. The key is modesty. Don’t show cleavage or wear Daisy Dukes, but feel free to pack short sleeve shirts and long shorts that show your knees.
The main exception is etiquette at the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, which requires women to be completely covered. On the day you plan to visit, carry a change of clothes (pants that cover your ankles, a long-sleeved shirt, and a headscarf) in a daypack so you can change before purchasing tickets.
3. You Can Drink Alcohol
Some Middle Eastern countries prohibit alcohol and enforce strict penalties on those caught drinking it. That’s not the case in the UAE, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Many bars and restaurants—especially those at resorts—serve beer, wine, and cocktails freely to those 21 and over.
Just be smart. Don’t get drunk, don’t go out in public intoxicated, and certainly don’t drive under the influence. Also, don’t purchase alcohol in one place and transport it, in any fashion, to another. Breaking any of these rules could result in imprisonment.
4. Taxis Top Uber
Forget Uber and Lyft. In the UAE, you’re better off hailing a taxi. Taxis in the UAE are regulated by the government, so their fares are actually cheaper than rideshare companies like Uber. Because of the government oversight, they are also safer. Need another reason to take a taxi? Taxis in the UAE are switching from gas-guzzling cars to hybrids, so it’s a great way to make your travels more sustainable.
5. PDA is Frowned Upon
Public displays of affection between men and women are discouraged in general, and even prohibited at the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. At the mosque, men and women—including those in platonic relationships like brothers and sisters—can’t touch even when posing for photos.
Similarly, it’s against the law for two unmarried people to share a room in the UAE. Most resorts and hotels, especially those that cater to Western travelers, look the other way, but you may want to check with the hotel before booking a room.
6. Even Prescription Drugs Can Be Trouble
The UAE has a zero-tolerance policy for recreational drugs. If you get caught with them, you’ll be going to jail for a long time. The same is true for some prescription and over-the-counter medications. You can find a list of prescription drugs that could be a problem here.
If you have a prescription for one of the listed drugs, bringing a valid copy of your prescription should be enough to keep you out of trouble as long as it is not a prohibited drug. (Cannabis, for example, is prohibited.) To be safe, put a copy of your prescription for any drug you take in your luggage.
With a little planning upfront, you can feel perfectly at ease in and have a safe trip to the UAE.
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By Teresa Bitler on February 21, 2020
Teresa Bitler is an award-winning travel writer specializing in adventure, culture, and history. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Sherman’s Travel, and many other high-profile outlets. To learn more, visit teresatravelstheworld.com.