Many travellers imagine that visiting Dubai as a woman is much more difficult, complicated and stressful than it actually is. Dubai ranks high on the list of the world’s safest cities, despite its location in a region that often makes headlines for being in seemingly eternal conflict. However, with the city’s reputation as a blinged-up Disneyland crossed with its Islamic-rooted governance, what is and isn’t allowed isn’t always clear.
While female visitors certainly aren’t expected to don burkinis at the beach, brushing up on local customs and norms before your trip will help you avoid awkward or potentially risky situations, and it will let you in on a few female-centric perks too.
What should I wear in Dubai?
Dubai’s quest to be the biggest and brightest might appear to indicate otherwise, but this city still has strong traditional roots. Emiratis – both men and women – dress in loose-fitting robes, and you’ll see many local women opting to cover their hair or faces with a scarf. Visitors don’t have to do the same, but covering your thighs and shoulders is recommended, so pack long skirts or baggy trousers. To visit a local mosque, women do need to wear a headscarf, but these are usually provided if you forgot to bring one. A colourful pashmina or scarf draped around the head and hair will do the trick.
Dubai’s bars and clubs are a different matter, and you can wear whatever you would to go out back home. However, be aware that many nightlife spots are located in hotels or shopping centres, so bring a cover-up to avoid awkward situations when moving from bar to bar. For example, if you decide to bare midriff, thighs or shoulders and arms, bring a scarf or another cover-up to don when moving on to your next watering hole.
It’s fine to wear your bikini on the beach or at the pool, but don’t wear it out and about. Not only will you be freezing (thanks to Arctic-like air conditioning in most malls and public spaces), but you’ll also offend locals, though they’ll most likely be too polite to say anything.
What should I wear if I’m visiting during Ramadan?
During Ramadan, you can still wear a bikini when sunbathing at the hotel pool or beach, but make sure you’re covered up as you walk through the hotel itself. When you’re out in the city, put on a below-the-knee skirt or loose-fitting trousers and a top that covers your upper arms and isn’t low cut.
Will I be harassed?
Women visiting Dubai can feel at ease sightseeing, taking taxis and dining out alone, even late in the evening, and the World Economic Forum ranks the United Arab Emirates as the world’s second safest country. That’s not to say that you won’t get any unexpected attention, but unfortunately, we’ve yet to come across many cities in the world that are entirely wolf-whistle free. If you are approached with a chat-up line, it’s not a problem to completely ignore it or politely but firmly decline it.
Can I drink alcohol in Dubai?
This is a grey area. At the airport, Dubai Duty Free sells oodles of alcohol to anyone over the age of 21, bars and clubs in the city’s hotels offer tempting happy hours, and free-flow boozy Friday brunches are legendary. Despite all of that, drinking alcohol in Dubai is technically illegal unless you have a licence, but there’s no way for temporary visitors to obtain one. Dubai police don’t track down beer-drinking tourists unless they’re causing a disturbance. Recently, there have been more calls for clarification on ‘the law that forgot about tourists’, but so far there’s been no resolution, and the current law is still the baseline.
What are ladies’ nights?
One of the big perks of being a female traveller in Dubai is the endless array of ladies’ nights. Once limited to women getting a free drink or two on a Tuesday evening – a clever marketing ploy in the days when the drinking crowd in Dubai was very male-heavy – ladies’ nights have become a Dubai institution and happen every night of the week at venues around town. From free or reduced access at beach clubs to free cocktails at bars and half-price dinners in some of the city’s best restaurants, tracking down ladies’ nights takes the punch out of what can otherwise be an expensive evening out.
Can I stay in a hotel room with my partner if we aren’t married?
Though thousands of unmarried couples cohabit without any issues in Dubai – presumably sharing beds as well as addresses – sex outside marriage is illegal and is punishable by jail and possibly deportation. This law seems to fall into the ‘if no one is bothered by it, then it’s OK’ category. However, should a complaint be made about you cohabiting with a member of the opposite sex – whether you book into a hotel room with your travel partner or want to bring someone home from a nightclub – then you could be in trouble. Hotels request passport details from guests checking in, but this is for security reasons rather than an attempt to find people having premarital sex.
When it comes to contraception, you’ll find condoms for sale in supermarkets, pharmacies and petrol stations, but the morning-after pill is illegal. Doctors in the UAE are required by law to report pregnancies in unmarried women. If you think you might be pregnant, consider waiting until you’re back home to consult a professional.
Who should I contact in an emergency?
The Dubai Police are extremely responsive and can help you with a whole manner of things from theft to road accidents. Dial 999 for emergencies and 911 for non-emergency situations. However, in cases that involve sex or alcohol, it’s better to contact your embassy, which might be able to advise further. If you are raped, reconsider reporting it to the authorities. While action against the perpetrators would be taken, you could find yourself charged with sex outside of marriage and face prosecution yourself. Instead, get in touch with your embassy, which can help you without involving local authorities.
How can I meet locals in Dubai?
What better way to find out more about life in a city that’s grown from a tiny fishing village to a mega-metropolis in less than half a century than by speaking to the locals? The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts weekly sessions where you can find out more about local culture and traditions with Emiratis of both sexes, including a no-holds-barred Q&A session where you can ask anything you’d like. Meet the Locals offers meetups where you can have lunch with people from all over the Emirates. Another option is ExpatWoman, a long-running group that has local members, a hugely informative database and an interactive forum. Tinder exists, and it’s incredibly popular. Various other dating apps are available for download too.
What do LGBT+ travellers need to know before visiting Dubai?
LGBT+ rights in Dubai are heavily suppressed. Public displays of affection, while frowned upon for straight couples, are a strict no-no for gay couples. You’ll see some local men holding hands, as well as nose rubbing between the sexes, but this is all platonic. Cross-dressing in public is illegal, and transgender travellers could face issues when filing official documentation. Gay travellers sharing a hotel room are unlikely to face any issues, unless you’re staying in some of the smaller locally run hotels in the older parts of the city. Instead, book into a higher-end, international-branded hotel. There’s no gay scene in Dubai per se, but The Play Room at The Oberoi, Barberry at Tryp by Wyndham and Zinc at the Crowne Plaza might be worth a visit.
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