So, you’re moving to the Middle East, and you’re probably asking yourself, “What do I wear?” Many people outside of Dubai think that the entire Middle East is like Saudi Arabia, where all women must cover up all the time.
Based on my limited experience from family trips to Egypt, and the handbook my company in Canada gave me to read before my first business trip to the Middle East, I assumed I had to ditch all sense of style and fashion to live in an Arab country.
I assumed wrong. The Gulf is different. Dubai is different.
Photo Credit: Fashion Hippie
How is Dubai Different?
Well, for one thing, the population of the United Arab Emirates is composed mainly of expats. They outnumber the locals roughly 3:1. The local population and the government understand that expats don’t hold the same beliefs or have the same culture as Arabs. So expats are not expected to behave the same way as the local population, with some exceptions I’ve listed below.
Being respectful is expected of everyone. So, the vulgar catcalls I’ve heard in the streets of Alexandria and on the beaches of Tel Aviv aren’t acceptable in Dubai. There are strict punishments up to and including deportation when any resident or tourist exhibits the slightest sign of disrespect towards another. So, you are not allowed to swear, cat call, fight or make rude gestures of any sort.
What does that mean for the expat?
The local population still maintains Arab traditions, but they are not imposed on the many different nationalities that live there. So as an expat, you’re actually free to dress however you like! But here are some things to keep in mind:
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In areas like the mall, restaurants, supermarkets, public areas of hotels, women should cover their shoulders & knees.
While I’ve never seen this rule enforced, you will garner extra attention if you don’t follow it.
However, a local woman, a colleague, a security guard or another expat may approach you to advise you that your dress could be found inappropriate. So what do you do? Don’t worry, just tell them you were unaware and no harm done.
Tip: Always carry a pashmina with you, particularly if you are uncertain of your outfit.
At Family Friendly Locations
Women MUST cover their shoulders and knees or else they are not allowed to enter.
Some people have asked me if I would dress differently if when going out with locals than if I was going out with my Western friends. The answer is, not particularly. So if I were at a business lunch with my CEO who happens to be a local, I’d wear appropriate professional clothing. I would do that even if he weren’t an Arab.
On the other hand, if I were going out with my local friends to a cafe, I would dress the same as I dress with my Western friends. As an expat, I am allowed certain freedoms because Arabs know that it’s not in my culture to dress like them. I do believe that there’s a time and a place for everything. If you keep being respectful in mind, you should be ok!
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At the Mosque
If you decide to visit a mosque like, the infamous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, as a woman, you are required to cover up from head to toe (including your hair).
The mosque provides abayas (long black dress to be worn over your own clothing) and shaylas (head scarf) to borrow for free. At the mosque, men must cover from their belly button to their knees but other than that, they do not have a specific dress code.
Everyone is required to remove his or her shoes before entering a mosque.
Photo Credit: Rana Darwish
What about the beach?
At the beach, just about everything is fair game. Well, no going nude or anything, but bikinis are ok. Please note that while you are welcome to wear a bathing suit at the beach, once you leave you should cover up. So no shorts and bikini tops in the mall. Always carry a cover-up in your beach bag for when you decide to move on to your next activity.
Local women go to the beach but they do not swim in public. They swim at home, or sometimes will go to the sea with their husbands at night so that they might swim in privacy. Water parks in Dubai also have a ladies day, and local women swim in public at such events.
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If you are into fitness, there are free outdoor gyms. You can dress however you like here. Yoga pants, tank tops, sports bras, shorts and t-shirts are all ok. If you workout in a mixed gym, you must cover your knees and shoulders. Dubai hosts an annual yoga festival, and throughout the different parks in the city, you will often find people running free or paid yoga classes. Once again, your outfit is your choice at such events but you should always bear in mind respect for everyone around you. So cleavage should be covered up as much as possible.
Bouguessa is a fashion line by designer Faiza Bouguessa that aims to put a modern spin on traditional clothing. The “abaya inspired” line is so stylish that even international superstar Beyoncé Knowles is a fan.
Photo Credit: Madiyah Al sharqi
Madiyah Al Sharqi is the daughter of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Mohamed Al Sharqi, Ruler of the Emirate of Fujairah. Madiyah studied at the French Fashion University in Dubai and launched her label in 2015. She has garnered international attention and appeared in renowned fashion magazines like, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.