Despite becoming one of the most modern cities in the world, the local population of Dubai remain conscious of their heritage, legacy and culture. The late President of the UAE, H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, famously said, 'A country that knows not its past has neither present nor future' a phrase which adequately describes the Emirates of today.
Many people come to Dubai holding misconceptions about the local culture, so in order to put everyone's mind at ease, Discover Dubai asked Mr Nasif Kayed, General Manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), to answer some of those frequently asked questions.
Q. What is the "dress code" in Dubai?
A. Most expect business casual as the official dress code, as well as the underlying values of modesty. Generally modesty in this country means no need to show-off. While we do see a bit of that, beachwear is for the beach, evening wear for the nightclubs and family friendly for the malls and public places. Just like company dress code rules, it's best that a family-friendly attire is worn when out, if your shoulders and knees are covered, you're sure not to offend anyone.
Q. Can you please explain the local dress?
A. In the past almost everyone wore some type of robe because of its simplicity and modesty, from religious figures to everyday people. Light, airy clothes also keep you cool in the desert, which is why they are still popular in this region. In the UAE, the national dress for men is the spotlessly clean and crisp white 'dishdasha' or 'kandoura' and is worn with a headdress known as a 'ghuttra' (normally white for Emirati nationals). The ghuttra is secured around the head with a black cord or 'agal' which is still used to tether the camel's feet together to stop them wandering off in the desert.
Local Emirati women wear a traditional black weightless cloak called an 'abaya', together with a headscarf called a 'sheyla' sometimes decorated with traditional embroidery or sequins. The black abaya has evolved over the years and has crossed the cultural line to become a more universal garment worn all over the world and is an iconic part of fashion in the region. Some women will also wear a leather mask called a 'burgaa' or use a very light veil 'niqab' to cover their face. Tradition, culture and religious modesty all influence the local dress for both men and women, and simplicity is the rule.
Q. Can I wear the local dress?
A. There is nothing that states you cannot dress like a local, but it's best to remember that once in that attire you may be mistaken for one! So best to learn the protocols, mind your manners and understand you may be representing (or misrepresenting) someone's culture.
Q. Is it okay to take pictures of a local/Emirati?
A. It depends on the person, ask first and if they refuse don't be offended, some might be in a hurry to get somewhere or may simply be shy and do not want their picture taken.
Q. Is it okay to hold hands, and even hug and kiss your wife/husband in public?
A. It's definitely okay to hold hands, but in public please conduct yourselves in a respectful manner. It's expected to see an embrace at the airport, but these types of gestures are not typical in local society, therefore visitors and residents are asked to keep intimate exchanges 'family friendly'.
Q. Is it okay to show the bottom of your feet?
A. In the past, walking in the village was not as tidy as it is today, so when you entered a home, one removed their shoes. Even if you wore sandals your feet may have become soiled and unsightly. Today, mostly the elderly would expect you not to show the bottom of your feet as a sign of respect.
Q. Can we enter a mosque?
A. Only if you are joining a guided tour through SMCCU (in Dubai) and currently Jumeirah Mosque and the Diwan Mosque in the historic district of Dubai are open weekly for tours.
Q. Why are alcohol and pork only served in limited areas in Dubai?
A. This comes from religion regarding do's and don'ts. So no to alcohol, but here in Dubai it is legal in places like hotels and private residences (if you have a license), but absolutely no tolerance for it in public or behind the wheel. As to pork, it's a dietary restriction mentioned in the Quran along with other restrictions pertaining to certain foods. In Dubai, pork can be found in a small number of markets, and is usually kept separate from the main area.
If you would like to know more, why not go along to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding where you can try the local dishes and have an open conversation about life in the Emirates. Call +971 4 3536666 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.