There is a lot of confusing and misleading information when it comes to what is and what is not culturally acceptable in Dubai. Dubai is a vibrant cosmopolitan city with over 100 nationalities living together in harmony. Millions of tourists flock to Dubai every year and the city is truly a cultural crossroads. The local population is quite small (estimated around 15%), but Emiratis in general are warm, welcoming, and very tolerant of foreign visitors and residents. In return, it is greatly appreciated if those who travel to Dubai take a little time to learn about the local customs and culture.
The UAE is a Muslim country. The culture is based on a deeply rooted belief in Islam and centers on the family. Mosques are dotted throughout the landscape of Dubai and five times a day the melodious prayer call or "adhan" will be heard. The official weekend is Friday, although government offices and certain multinational companies are also closed on Saturday. Mosques on Fridays around noon will be overflowing as worshippers gather to listen to a sermon. On Fridays most stores open around 2PM although certain large retail outlets such as Carrefour and most large grocery stores are open as normal. Arabic is the official language; however English is widely spoken by almost everyone and all the street signs are in both English and Arabic.
There is no specific dress code in Dubai, and you will see both ends of the spectrum from women who cover themselves from head to toe to those who choose to barely cover themselves at all. At the beach women are welcome to wear bikinis and men can don swimming shorts. Away from the beach it is more culturally acceptable for men to avoid wearing shorts or going shirtless and for women to avoid mini-skirts, midriff baring tops, and shorts. T-shirts or blouses and mid-length skirts or Capri pants for women are considered quite appropriate. Muslim women from the Gulf States typically dress in a long black robe known as the "abaya". The "abaya" itself is not an Islamic requirement, but rather a cultural custom. Islam requires ladies to cover their heads and to wear long loose clothes covering their arms and legs. Gulf men wear a loose, typically white robe called a "dishdasha" along with a white or red checkered headdress known as the "gutra". The gutra is held in place with a black cord called an "agal".
Arabs are one of the most hospitable people in the world, but visitors still should take note of a few cultural musts when interacting with locals. It is best to ask permission of local women before taking their photograph and most likely you will be told no. Visitors should also be aware that some Muslim women and men will avoid shaking hands with members of the opposite sex as per Islamic tradition. This should not be taken as an offense and it is simply best to wait and see if the other person extends their hand in greeting first. Local men will typically greet other local men by touching noses or kissing cheeks. Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are highly frowned upon, although you will see men (typically Asian expats) holding hands with other men when walking. This is a cultural norm and merely an expression of friendship. If you are invited to enjoy a coffee, tea or traditional meal with a local family there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Before entering a home shoes should be removed. When sitting, take care to avoid pointing the soles of your feet in anyone's direction as this is considered rude in Arab Muslim culture. Food and drink (and there will be a lot of it!) should be taken with one's right hand, as the left hand is reserved for "unclean" practices such as washing after using the bathroom. Your host will most likely keep offering you more and more food and drink. It is acceptable to take a second helping but not necessarily a third or fourth! You will have to be persistent and it might take a bit of polite "back and forth" between you and your host before your host acknowledges that you are actually finished!
Much confusion surrounds the Holy Month of Ramadan and how it pertains to visitors. Ramadan is a month of fasting and the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Islamic months are based on the lunar calendar which is shorter than the Gregorian (Western) calendar. Thus, based on sightings of the moon, Islamic months move forward each year by about 11 days. This means Ramadan may be in fall, summer, spring or winter as the lunar calendar continues to rotate forward by 11 days each year. Muslims will rise before dawn to have a light pre-fast meal called "Suhoor". They will then spend the day refraining from eating, drinking, or smoking as well as trying to refrain from negative behaviors while engaging more in prayer and reflection. At sunset the fast is broken - this is called "Iftar". Fasting is obligatory for all adult Muslims and is a way for them to draw closer to their religion and to appreciate all that they have. Charity to the poor is also very important at this time.
During the Holy Month, non-Muslims in Dubai are also expected (by law) to refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public. A bit of discretion and respect for the host culture is really all that is called for. If a visitor accidentally makes a mistake and eats, drinks, or smokes in public, the worst that is likely to happen is that someone will gently remind you of the time of year and ask you to stop. Although most restaurants will be closed during the day (or offering take-away only), many malls now have food outlets that are screened off from the public and open during the day in Ramadan for non-Muslims. It is also perfectly acceptable for non-Muslims to eat and drink in the privacy of their homes or hotel rooms during the day. Most hotel restaurants will remain open (with screened-off areas) for hotel guests and grocery stores also remain open all day long. It is greatly appreciated during Ramadan if women are a bit more conservative in their dress - simply avoiding short skirts or sleeveless tops. All live musical and dance performances are suspended during Ramadan but pubs will open after sunset. Time seems to move a little slower during Ramadan and by law Muslim employees have shortened work days. In general visitors do need to be more culturally sensitive during the Holy Month, but after the breaking of the fast each day the city comes alive and it is an ideal time to visit if you are looking to experience cultural flavor.
While Dubai is most famous for its shopping, visitors should take advantage of their trip to the United Arab Emirates to also learn about the local culture. The Dubai Museum, built in an old traditional fort, is a must-see for all ages and includes exhibits of weapons, national costumes, and displays of the desert as well as the pearl diving industry on which Dubai was originally founded. The Heritage and Diving Village features displays of Dubai's maritime past and includes quaint shops and restaurants. Finally, The Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding offers cultural awareness programs, recruiting young UAE nationals to speak to visitors and residents about Dubai culture and history, as well as offering other activities throughout the year including mosque tours and Arabic classes.