Dubai is an Islamic state, but has a rather tolerant approach to religious observance. There are around 1,400 mosques in the city and prayer rooms in every building. Muslims will pray five times a day. However, other religious groups are allowed to worship, too, and you will find several churches, Hindu and Sikh temples in Dubai as well. Non-Muslim festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, Diwali and the Hindu Holi are celebrated openly.
During the holy month of Ramadan Muslims are fasting from dawn till dusk. As a foreigner, you are expected to follow all rules, so you are not supposed to drink, eat or smoke in public. Restaurants are closed and you even shouldn’t bring you own food to your office desk or chew chewing gum. Non-Muslims can eat or drink privately at home or in designated hotel restaurant areas though. In some shopping malls there might be one food court open but it will have blinds that block the view. Also, don’t play any loud music or show strong emotions.
Islam also requires that both, men and women, dress modestly. Emiratis are proud to wear their national dress, but do not expect this of foreigners. Men wear an ankle-length, loose-fitting cotton garment (kandora or dishdasha). A white ghutra covers the head and is held in place by a black cord (agal). Women wear a long, black coat (an abaya) over their western clothes or traditional long-sleeved full-length dresses (jalabeya). A black headscarf called a shayla is draped over the head.
Expat men can wear Western clothes, while women should wear something that covers below the knees, shoulders and neckline or at least always bring a long shawl to cover yourself up in public places if wearing skimpy summer outfits.
Emiratis also won’t eat pork and drinking alcohol in public is prohibited. However, non-Muslim residents will find pork dishes in restaurants or supermarkets and also can acquire a license to buy and drink alcohol at home. Besides, hotels and bars are allowed to sell very expensive alcoholic drinks to non-Muslim foreigners.
But be aware of the zero-tolerance policy in place and never drive home after a night out. And when catching a taxi or walking home, make sure you’re not obviously drunk, wear inappropriate party clothes or misbehave. This is severely frowned upon, and can lead to police intervention. If foreigners ever get into trouble in Dubai, it is most of the times because they are drunk on the street.
It is also a criminal offence to use any content that is considered as un-Islamic, blasphemous, or that encourages sinful activity. The government blocks all websites that are offensive to the religious, moral, and cultural values of the Emirate. Misuse of social media is also punishable. Thus, anything that you think might be controversial to Islamic rules, the royal family or politics you should not look at.
In an Islamic country like the Emirate of Dubai, religious and traditional gender rules apply to both sexes. For example, unmarried couples are not allowed to spend time together alone. Holding hands or kissing in public are an absolute no-go. This includes foreigners, even in places like nightclubs, hotels, taxis or on the beach. A simple kiss in public can get anyone in trouble with the local authorities.
While the sponsorship system requires that Muslim women obtain permission from their husband (sponsor) or a male family member to do certain things, e.g. open a bank account, they are traditionally very much respected in Dubai society. Many are well-educated and are working in highly regarded professions, juggling family and job life like women in western countries do. Women in Dubai are driving and can travel on their own. There are many women-only sections in public life, which may be seen as privileges as well, e.g. on the Dubai metro or on trains. Dubai also got special Lady’s taxis with female drivers for the comfort of many Muslim women who do not wish to be with a man in a car. And in many public offices there may be fast-track lines for women to queue up.