Dubai is an international city in the United Arab Emirates where social

Dubai is an international city in the United Arab Emirates where social norms are deeply rooted in both tradition and religious practices. Interestingly, Dubai has also become a hub of commerce and trade, so these norms are mixing with those of the global population. As a result, the laws and norms influencing the daily lives of the people of Dubai are tricky to navigate and constantly shifting.
Social Norms in Dubai
Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and with a population of over 2,250,000, it is the largest member of the UAE. Located on the Persian Gulf, Dubai is a center of culture and economy. Dubai has received a great deal of attention in recent years as a result of the city’s ambitious construction projects, and it is home to the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building. As many as 85 percent of the people living in Dubai were not born in the UAE, and there is no way for individuals who were born outside of the Emirates to gain citizenship. Arabic is the official and most widely spoken language in Dubai, although English is commonly used as a second language. The UAE has a strong foothold in the global economy as one of the leading producers of oil, and for that reason, has a reputation for extreme, extravagant wealth. Dubai has come to be one of the most expensive cities in the world.
While it is conservative by Western standards, Dubai is among the most tolerant cities in the United Arab Emirates. Islam is the official religion of Dubai, but large communities of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Buddhists live in the city. Each of these religions is granted protection under the law. And while social norms in the city still strongly reflect traditional Islamic beliefs and commitments to Sharia Law, as we have seen, they are changing in some ways to reflect the increasingly globalized nature of Dubai.
Public Displays of Affection
Sharia Law in Dubai underscores modesty, and this applies to the affection that couples may show one another in public. Public displays of affection are illegal in Dubai. While a couple may be able to exchange a brief kiss on the cheek, anything more may have severe social and legal consequences. In fact, in 2010 a British couple was jailed, fined, and deported after being accused of kissing on the lips in a restaurant (BBC News, 2010). This case in particular is an interesting one: the couple was turned into the authorities because another patron of the restaurant was offended by their behavior. Further, the law was interpreted more strictly because the man was of Muslim descent, even though he had grown up in Britain. This example serves to show these norms do not only exist because of the laws — public perception of decency helps to reinforce these social norms. In addition, social norms differ for foreigners as compared to natural born citizens. For this reason, public affection is rare in Dubai.
However, social customs do sanction some touching between people. Women greet one another by giving light kisses on each cheek several times, and men touch noses when they shake hands. Men and women rarely touch or shake hands in public (Advameg, Inc., n.d.).
Social norms in Dubai also strongly affect how men and women dress. Women in Dubai wear traditional Muslim attire, including long black robes called abayas and headscarves called hijabs. Some women may cover themselves so that only their eyes are exposed. Men in Dubai also dress traditionally, wearing long white robes called dishdashas and tied headscarves or headscarves held in place with black cords. But because Dubai is an international city, it is common for visitors to wear less traditional attire. This clash of customs seems to be rubbing off on Dubai; in fact, conservative business clothing is becoming increasingly more acceptable for women in the workplace, demonstrating how social norms can change over time.
While Westerners and tourists are not expected to wear traditional Middle Eastern attire, it is necessary to dress modestly in designated areas. Sharia Law requires that the body be covered out of decency and respect, and this often translates to the requirement that women’s knees and shoulders must be covered. In the privacy of one’s own home or hotel room, Sharia Law is open to interpretation. Typically, people dress less modestly in their own homes.
In Dubai, social norms around dancing, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol are changing as a result of the globalization of the city. Dancing is considered unacceptable and indecent in public places. The consumption and availability of alcohol is taboo, especially for Muslims, as a result of traditional Islamic doctrine. However, it is possible to consume alcohol in the city. Restaurants that are attached to hotels are permitted to sell alcohol, and because of the climate and strong tourist contingent in Dubai, hotels are typically very large. They may be connected to other public places of interest, like shopping centers and malls, making these restrictions a little easier for tourists to navigate. Public intoxication is still criminal, though, so tourists must be careful.
Muslims are called to prayer five times a day, and all commercial activities are placed on hold during these times of worship. It is normal for people to stop what they are doing, music to stop playing, and cab drivers to occasionally pull over to face Mecca and pray. Further, the workweek in Dubai starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday because Friday is a holy day reserved for prayer and rest.
Some standard gestures that are considered socially acceptable or even expected in many places in the world should be avoided in Dubai. For example, visitors should not try to shake hands with people they meet unless the handshake is initiated by the acquaintance. Visitors should avoid crossing their legs or showing the soles of their feet, since doing so is considered disrespectful. When gesturing with one’s hands, it is important not to point but instead to use the entire hand, because pointing can be found offensive. This is a gesture typically reserved for dogs.
Many people, because of their personal beliefs, will not want their photographs taken. Islam discourages frivolous photography. Scholars of Islam state that images of people or animals should not be displayed publicly. They should be stored in drawers or cabinets but not left out for anyone to view at any time. This belief strongly influences the social norms around taking photos. It is not socially acceptable to take photos of people in public places without their permission, and this social norm can be enforced legally (Hosein, 2020).
Social Customs
With regard to hospitality, interpersonal relationships, and social customs, the people of Dubai are formal. Traditional practices that foster relationships are important. Therefore, if a local invites you to his or her home, it is important to accept the opportunity to build the relationship. Similarly, it is rude to refuse food or drink that is offered. It is also customary to ask about a person’s family many times before moving on to business discussions. Once an agreement is reached, even if only verbally, a Dubai businessperson will expect that the other party sticks to this agreement.
Advameg, Inc. (n.d.). United Arab Emirates. Countries and Their Cultures.
Jailed Dubai kissing pair lose appeal over conviction. (2010, April 4). BBC News.
Hosein, I. N. (2020). Is photography prohibited in Islam? Sheikh Imran Hosein.