More than 200,000 expats are attracted to Dubai for its vibrant social scene, constant sunshine, business opportunities, accessible – if expensive – housing, and low taxes. In recent years Dubai has invested billions in creating a city of the future, and the expat community has benefited further from issues facing Europe, as businesses and expats look further afield.
Dubai culture and arts were enriched further with the 2022 Dubai Expo. It demonstrated an environmentally friendly, tech-enabled city with over 80% of the event’s infrastructure destined to remain in place afterwards. This enterprise alone created an additional 270,000 jobs, making the recruitment market even more lively and profitable.
However, there are cultural adjustments that expats in Dubai will need to make. Preparing for the everyday differences between Britain and Dubai in advance will help you settle in quicker. Here’s everything you need to help you embrace Dubai culture as an expat.
What is Dubai known for?
In recent years, Dubai has been known for its extraordinary contemporary architecture, including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and hundreds of stunning skyscrapers, housing luxury hotels, offices and apartments.
Here you will find evidence of luxury lifestyles at their most extreme, from glitzy nightlife, high-end shopping malls and the most expensive cars and accessories money can buy. However, with its burgeoning expat and business community, even those who may just witness the lifestyles of the rich and famous, can experience much of what a truly modern city has to offer.
Traditionally, Dubai benefits from a romantic and rich historical past, where its Arab Islamic culture is underpinned be its dramatic desert location, and extreme climate, characterised by sand dunes and the diverse flora and fauna of the UAE region.
How is the expat community of Dubai broken down?
Of the seven Emirates, Dubai has the largest population almost 3.5 million people. The low-tax lifestyle it offers entices people from all over the world. Expats living in Dubai make up approximately 88% of the total population. The table below shows the main nationalities that make up the expat population in UAE.
Percentage of population
Source: Global Media Insight
What are the main features of Dubai culture?
Dubai culture and arts are largely determined by its Islamic religion and traditional Arab culture. The influence of both on the country’s architecture, music, dress, cuisine, and lifestyle are very prominent.
However, Dubai has always been a meeting point for East and West, and nowadays, it is also a cultural mix of the modern and the historic.
Expats can take trips into the desert, float in ancient dhows on slow-flowing creeks, see ancient artefacts in its many museums, and eat and drink traditional food, while just moments later, take in the latest nightlife, or claim a glass-fronted air-conditioned office many hundreds of floors high.
So, what are the key things British expats living in Dubai or thinking about moving to Dubai need to know to help them settle in and embrace their new life?
Dubai culture rules
The culture expats are likely to experience in Dubai is, at least on the surface, highly westernised. However, Dubai is Muslim and there are cultural differences, for example, around drugs, alcohol and behaviour in public, that expats need to be aware of.
Hotels will serve alcohol, but it is very expensive, and buying alcohol in shops is virtually impossible. The most usual option is to buy Duty Free and consume it in your own home.
The dress code in the UAE varies, especially for women. At its most extreme, clothes are full length and flowing, with head coverings for both men and women, and women’s clothing being largely black. However, the rules are somewhat more relaxed in Dubai itself, where women are not required to wear head scarves, and when in westernized central areas, may wear western clothes, up to a point. It is good manners however, to avoid tight or low-cut clothing, bare legs and showing shoulders.
There’s little in the way of traditional European theatre or cinema, but there are museums and nature reserves, and the racecourse is very popular. In addition, if you’re open to new cultural experiences, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
Another thing that sets the culture in Dubai apart is the weather. Dubai has an arid desert climate, with an average of only 140-200mm rainfall per year. Temperatures can reach 50°C in the summer and rarely drop below the mid-20s in the winter – a very different climate to Britain. Expats living in Dubai can also expect to become acquainted with shamal winds, violent dust storms that tend to happen during the summer months in UAE.
Dubai culture: dos and don’ts
- ☐ Do learn as much as you can about Dubai culture rules before you go
- ☐ Don’t make assumptions based on what’s usual at home
- ☐ Do learn a few key phrases of the language to help you feel at home
- ☐ Don’t assume everyone will speak English
- ☐ Do take time to discover Dubai’s culture and arts experiences
- ☐ Don’t always stay in your expat bubble
- ☐ Do make sure you fully understand the laws around alcohol and drugs
- ☐ Don’t take any chances
- ☐ Do expect to experience some culture shock
- ☐ Don’t worry – it takes time to settle in and speaking with other expats will help
12 key things British expats need to know about Dubai culture
So, what are the key things British expats need to know about Dubai culture to help them settle in and embrace their new life?
1/ Sharia law
The official system of law in the UAE is Sharia, which has been developed from the holy Quran. It’s supplemented by the non-religious legal system and works alongside it as a moral guide to etiquette and behaviour.
There is, however, evidence that the UAE is taking a slightly more relaxed approach towards westernization in terms of its strict restrictions. In 2020, the country announced an overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, which allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate and lifted some alcohol restrictions.
While Sharia rules may seem unfamiliar to some British expats living in Dubai, it is important to show respect and follow traditional customs where required.
2/ Dress code
The Dubai authorities require people to dress modestly. Although tourists often disregard this rule, if you’re looking to settle permanently you must dress appropriately.
As a general rule, when out in public women should wear clothes that are at least knee length and cover their shoulders and midriff. Clothes should also be fairly loose, as tight-fitting clothes are considered immodest. Men have more leeway and can wear clothes that show the shoulders, although you should cover your midriff and shorts should be knee length.
Dubai’s religious establishments include mosques, temples and churches. If you plan on visiting any of them, you will need to comply with the dress code, which usually includes full-length sleeves and a head covering for both men and women.
Ramadan, a month of fasting, takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this time, you are not allowed to consume in public during the day. This includes eating, drinking, smoking, and chewing gum. This rule applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, although pregnant women and small children are exempt.
4/ LGBTQ+ laws
Homosexuality is still illegal across the UAE and is punishable with the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Attitudes in Dubai are slightly more relaxed than the rest of the UAE due to the high population of expats and tourists, but it’s advisable to be discreet.
5/ Living together
One of the biggest cultural differences expats will experience in Dubai culture is that it’s illegal for two people of the opposite sex to live together without being married. Although there is evidence that some of these rules are being revisited, it is advisable to check before assuming you can set up home together.
The culture in Dubai also considers it indecent to take part in public displays of affection. Holding hands, kissing or hugging can result in a fine or even being arrested.
For religious reasons, many people don’t touch those of the opposite sex, or anyone at all, so if you are introduced to someone, wait for them to offer their hand. If they don’t, just nod politely and smile. This goes for casual settings as well. If you are in a crowded place, keep your hands to yourself and simply ask someone to move out of your way.
Expats living in Dubai should be aware of the surprisingly strict rules regarding pets. While it is legal to own a dog in Dubai, they are considered unclean for religious reasons, so it will be hard to come by dog-friendly facilities such as dog parks and kennels.
You must also have a licence to own a pet. All pets must be microchipped, vaccinated, and registered with the proper authorities. You can be heavily fined or even arrested for breaking the rules.
7/ Alcohol consumption/drugs
Expats living in Dubai should be aware that the sale and consumption of alcohol is still strictly regulated. A licence is required to both buy and sell alcohol, and most people choose to drink at home or in licensed clubs/bars. It’s also a criminal offence to be intoxicated in public, so make sure you book a taxi if you are out drinking at a bar.
Similarly, the use of drugs is strictly prohibited. Unlike some western countries, where cannabis is legal and small quantities of drugs for personal use are permitted, there is zero tolerance of drugs in Dubai. Prohibition also includes some prescription drugs, so if you take medication make sure it is legal in the country. The repercussions of being found in possession of drugs are severe. The Emirate authorities include the presence of drugs in the bloodstream as possession.
Living in Dubai as an expat, be aware of where and when it’s appropriate to take photos. It is illegal to take pictures of certain government buildings, military installations, and some airports, for security reasons, so if you have a hobby like bird-watching, it’s best to stay away from these types of buildings.
It is also a crime to post photos and videos online that are critical of the UAE government, individuals or companies. Avoid posting anything that could be considered insensitive to culture in Dubai.
9/ Business culture
Along with the rest of the UAE, Dubai adopted a western working week in 2022, switching from working Sunday to Thursday to Monday to Friday. State employees work a half-day on Friday – the Muslim holy day. During Ramadan, employees work two fewer hours per day.
Business culture in Dubai considers it polite to have one side of your business card printed in Arabic, which should be face-up when presenting it to Arabic clients or colleagues. It is also best to make small talk, such as asking about families, before moving on to business, as it shows care and consideration for clients’ personal lives.
There is little gender divide in the workplace, with males and females directing businesses and leading teams equally. However, there are some distinctions based on nationality – for example, few jobs in the Dubai police force are open to foreign nationals.
Remuneration can vary according to nationality, so it’s wise to be sure of your employment terms before you start work. Employment law is not as detailed as it is in Europe, and it may be difficult to alter or improve your terms of work later on.
10/ Swearing/hand gestures
As an expat in Dubai, you should be mindful that swearing and other rude language is considered offensive, and you can be fined if caught.
British expats living in Dubai will find that many hand gestures they use to express positivity are taken the opposite way in Dubai. For example, giving someone a thumbs up in Dubai is equivalent to the middle finger in British culture.
Never shake hands, pass things, or eat, using your left hand. This hand is considered to be dirty in Dubai culture as it’s used after going to the bathroom.
Dubai is largely a safe space in which to live, move about and work. This is largely due to the strict Sharia and non-religious legal system, and the prevalence of cameras which are everywhere. So much of the public space is monitored, that locals often do not consider it necessary to lock the doors of their houses or cars when they go out.
12/ Special considerations for women
The UAE is making gender equality a top priority, and there are a number of initiatives underway which make it a better place for women to live, move about and work.
A variety of venues operate women-only days, including cinemas, parks and nightclubs. In addition, many restaurants and clubs operate ladies’ nights, which offer special deals for women, while not excluding men.
Public transport, such as the metro, trams and buses, have designated areas for women and children, and there is a well-known taxi service which provides cabs driven by women, for women.
Some organizations, for instance government offices for applications for licenses, visas, etc., have different queues for women and men.
How can you adjust to Dubai culture?
Making friends in any new country can be daunting, especially in countries where the culture is particularly unfamiliar. Dubai is a fast-moving and rapidly developing city, and expats arrive and leave frequently. Making friends can be difficult. However, with the great volume and diversity of the expat community, being open to meeting new people and making friends will ensure you settle in quickly and start to enjoy your new life.
When something as simple as offering a handshake can be considered inappropriate, British expats will definitely feel the differences in Dubai culture. Learning about the culture of Dubai before you go will help you understand what to expect and give you confidence in social situations.
Be aware that it takes time to adjust, and that it’s completely normal to experience culture shock when moving to another country. It’s vital to look after your mental health and be patient with yourself, and connect with others, to help you settle into life as an expat in Dubai.
Healthcare and insurance in Dubai
Healthcare in Dubai is pretty good. In 2019 the medical journal The Lancet rated the UAE a score of 63 out of a possible 100 points, which sounds reasonable, but it should be noted that the US score is 82.
The majority of services are free for Emirati nationals. However, expats must pay to use the basic public services, through a health card, obtainable online from the Ministry of Health. Without this, you can be treated for emergencies, but this will be a temporary measure.
For anything other than the basic services, private healthcare insurance is mandatory, and 98% of the population have private medical cover. You won’t be able to get a residency visa without proof of medical insurance.
Expats moving to Dubai for work will find that their employer is legally advised to provide cover, and businesses are also encouraged to provide cover for families of employees. It is recommended that expats source private medical insurance before they go.
Tips for expats living in Dubai
- Reach out to other expats – With just approximately 240,000 British expats living in Dubai, it won’t be hard to find a support network. Contact other expats in Dubai through social media and begin building a network even before you arrive. Reaching out to an expat community can beforehelp you to feel less homesick and support you as you adjust to a change in climate, environment, culture and language. Here you will find friends to help if you should fall ill or run into a problem, to provide handy hints and tips, keep you company, and above all, share the truly amazing experiences to be had in your new country.There are many ways to reach and connect with other expat communities, either online or through hobbies, shared experiences, and cultural preferences. Sports clubs, gyms, and sightseeing trips are also great ways to meet people and make friends. Look out for one of the many expat forums and newsletters, and before long, you’ll be posting your own.
- Research Dubai customs and culture – Understand the culture in Dubai before you go will help you feel less out of place as you settle into life as an expat. Take time to explore the different customs you might come across and any cultural norms that might be different to what you’re used to and you’ll find the transition a lot smoother.
- Keep in touch with friends and family – Whilst you may want to throw yourself headfirst into expat life in Dubai, it’s important to keep in contact with your friends and family back home. Having the extra support network will keep you grounded when culture shock sets in.
- Learn some key phrases – You don’t have to be fluent in Arabic to get by in Dubai, but knowing a few useful phrases can help. Simple phrases such as ‘hello’ (Marhaba), ‘how are you?’ (kayfa halluk to a man and kayfa halluki to a woman) and ‘thank you’ (shukran) will help you get on better with the locals, and being able to ask for directions is invaluable.
Are you ready to embrace the culture of Dubai?
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