The United Arab Emirates is increasingly becoming a popular travel destination beyond being an important travel hub. Consisting of seven independent city-states that are often confused as countries in and of themselves, the UAE is made up of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al Quwain and of course perhaps the most famous, Dubai.
Dubai isn’t exactly one of my favourite places on the planet, but I do find it very useful as a convenient and relatively comfortable travel hub. Many people do flock here for more than that however, lured in by Dubai’s glitz and glamour and seduced by the quintessential consumerist paradigms.
Everything in Dubai is about being bigger and better than everyone else. They have the most luxurious resorts, the tallest towers, the grandest displays of wealth and the biggest malls. This vacuous ode to capitalism really does not do the culture of Dubai – or of the United Arab Emirates – any justice at all, but it is so prevalent and so readily pushed into the face of the world – and tourists in particular, it is hard to see anything but the grad displays of wealth and luxury.
Culture And Etiquette.
Dubai in general is not as strict in terms of gender ideologies as some other Muslim states, and the common myths that women cannot drive or take a job are not true. Women do drive, and they do have jobs and are increasingly even entering higher education and choosing not to wear the veil. Saying that however there is still a long history of ingrained social practices and it is still the common ideology that the home and family are solely the domain and responsibility of women.
Being predominantly Emirati, Dubai holds with the traditions of only eating and drinking with your right hand (the left is seen as impure as it is used for other purposes). You should also be aware that interaction between the sexes is very ritualised, basically never touch an Emirate woman and don’t shake hands unless she extends the invitation first. Courtesy and hospitality are extremely important in Dubai, and small things such as standing up when women or elders enter the room are still common here.
Despite moderate ideologies in some areas, Dubai is still an extremely conservative Islamic state, and all visitors are expected to comply 100% with local laws and strict rules on dress and behaviour. Modest dress is required at all times, and this does include covering your shoulders and legs. It isn’t necessary to completely cover up by any means and a certain leeway is granted in tourist or hotel resorts where swimwear would be expected for example, but outside of that the more flesh you show (and this applies to men wearing shorts or going topless too) the more negative attention – and potential legal trouble – you will attract.
Behaviour is also strictly controlled, especially contact between men and women. Tourists have been jailed for kissing each other on the lips in public, and it goes without saying anything more than that can land you in serious trouble. Gay couples will also have to seriously control their behaviour in public as you can land yourselves in serious trouble too, even holding hands or hugging in public can get your collar felt. It should also go without saying that any form of drunken or violent behaviour will be swiftly dealt with by the authorities.
Many visitors do get into trouble by unintentionally breaching codes of etiquette or minor local laws, and getting yourself out of that hole can be very difficult indeed, so just be careful.
What You Need To Know.
Citizens of the UK, Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries receive a free 30 day visa on arrival. For other countries, check with your local consulates as to your standing as things do change from time to time.
There are no specific vaccinations recommended for Dubai, but you should always ensure your basic routine inoculations and boosters are up to date before travelling. Malaria is a very low risk and antimalarial prophylaxis is usually not prescribed for travel here, but you should still take reasonable precautions against mosquito bites.
Dubai’s health care system is as good as any in the Western world and standards of hospitals and clinics are very high. English speaking clinical staff are easily found in most places and pharmacies with well trained staff are common. Be aware that you will probably have to pay for treatment upfront, so ensure your medical insurance is up to date.
Crime and Safety.
Dubai is actually very safe, and it is highly unlikely that you will become the victim of any type of serious crime here.
Unfortunately Dubai’s legal system often verges on the mentally unstable and tourists often find themselves in legal trouble for breaching various local laws, by laws and cultural faux pas.
Bear in mind that if you regularly carry over the counter meds or prescription meds in your first aid kit such as codeine for example, then you will have to be very careful you don’t fall foul of Dubai’s extremely strict stance on banned substances, which does include some prescribed medications. As a rule of thumb don’t carry anything in at all unless it is an existing and long lasting prescription, and even then keep everything in its original packaging, have copies of all prescriptions and doctors letters and don’t carry more than you need lest they view it as trafficking.
If you indulge or try to carry any illegal substances through customs though, frankly you deserve anything they throw at you (the death penalty is enforced here), and you will be unlikely to get any sympathy from your consulates either.
Costs and money.
The unit of currency in the UAE is the Dirham.
Dubai is expensive, there really isn’t any way around that, and people spending any amount of time in the city will have to budget well for it. Prices are essentially comparable to travelling in any of the more expensive Western countries of Europe or the USA. Accommodation in particular will set you back a lot of money, with the most basic hotels starting at about £40 GBP per night, averaging out at around £100 GBP in a comfortable mid range place and heading through the roof from there. Tourist attractions and activities are likely to put a big dent in your budget too, but you can save a litle money by eating at local shwarma cafes instead of Western fast food places or restaurants and using public transport. This is not a budget place to visit however.
When to go.
Basically anytime is a good time to visit. The summer months can get extremely hot, but this is tempered by the fact you can enjoy off season prices in this otherwise expensive city. The winter months are often more comfortable temperature wise but prices do shoot up.
Places To See.
The Dubai Museum.
One of the few cultural things to see in this consumerist ode to Western Capitalism, the museum is like an oases in the middle of the city. Housed in the old Al Fahidi fort, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the country’s history.
Tearing yourself away from the malls for a few hours will be more than worth it to visit this heritage area. It is highly sterilised and rebuilt, but wandering round the labyrinthine streets filled will old houses and traditional architecture is the closest thing you will get to wandering through a piece of history in Dubai.
This may seem like a strange addition, but if you want to see a side of Dubai that isn’t a glitzy mall or sterilised tourist resort then head to the wharf for a magical site of hundreds of traditional dhows moored up and plying their trade. It is like being transported back in time.
Burj Khalifa and the Burj Al Arab.
Like everything else in Dubai these structures were designed to be the biggest, tallest and best of their kind, and they certainly are an impressive site. Not seeing these buildings while you are here is like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower.
Things To Do.
Shopping, Shopping, Shopping.
Dubai is shopping central from the second you step off the plane into the glitzy airport mall. Full of high end malls and luxury brands, Dubai is the place to flash the credit cards and indulge in an opulent spree.
Take A Safari Into The Desert.
Don’t get too excited, this isn’t like taking an expedition out into the Sahara or the Thar desert, instead this is one of many very sterilised experiences born out of and aimed solely at the mass tourism market. The once quiet sand dunes around the city are alive with mass tour groups quad biking, 4 wheel driving, sand skiing and surfing or camel trekking in little circles. If this is your thing and you have the cash, then take your pick.