Since I moved to Dubai, I regularly get questions by friends, family, or through Instagram. Dubai is a fascinating city and the Middle East an incredible region but both raise a lot of questions in people’s mind. Obviously I am no expert of the city, let alone the region, but after 2 years living here, I think I can give fair answers to most of the questions I get. So I rounded up 10 of the most common questions about Dubai and tried to reply to it to the best of my knowledge (and sometimes a bit of Google.com). Here we go : 10 things you should know about Dubai !!
IS DUBAI A COUNTRY ? NO
I thought I would start with the basics !
Dubai is not a country, it is an Emirate (kind of like a state in the US), part of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a federation of 7 Emirates, namely Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Kheimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm Al-Quwain, each of them ruled by a Sheikh. Traditionally the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi is chosen as the president of the UAE. Dubai itself has been ruled by the Al Maktoum family since 1833 and Dubai current Sheikh, His Highness Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum rules over Dubai since 2006.
Dubai is the most populated emirate with nearly 3 millions residents, out of which around 85% are expat / foreign workers. A unique demographic for sure! Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and the wealthiest emirate comes second in term of population, and houses all the federal government offices.
While Dubai has always been the centre of attention, Abu Dhabi is gaining popularity, with its incredible Sheikh Zayed mosque, its beautiful desert and the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.
IS DUBAI SAFE ? YES
Because of the dramatic conflicts ongoing in the Middle East, some might wonder if Dubai is a safe place to stay and visit. And you will be happy to know that yes, Dubai is completely safe. Despite its troubled neighbours such as Syria, Yemen, Palestine and even Lebanon in the past, Dubai always managed to stay out of conflict on its own territory.
Although I don’t have statistic, I believe crime is not an issue in Dubai. As a tourist, you should only take the same precautions as anywhere else: keep an eye on your bag, don’t expose yourself to pickpockets etc … Just the usual!
It is also safe for ladies, to walk around, even late at night and on their own. I have been in Dubai 2 years and never felt any discomfort.
IS IT ALWAYS HOT ? NO
No it is not ! This is one the biggest misconception about Dubai.
Summer is of course just as you imagine, probably even worse, with temperatures rising above 40 degres Celsius (over 100 degres Fahrenheit) for at least 5 months, from July to October. During these months, it is impossible to stay outside for too long: no lunch or dinner, no outdoor sport, no beach time (Well some people do, but I can’t) etc. This is definitely not my favourite time of the year and you will find me complaining about it a lot, and trying to get away as much as possible!
Then you have the perfect winter ! From November to April the weather becomes amazing! It is sunny during the day with temperatures in the low 20 deg Celsius and chilly in the evening. It is time to get your favourite low boots and leather jacket out for a spin. After living 6 years in hot and humid Singapore, Dubai winter is an amazing contrast! You can have lunch outside, go to the beach … just like end of spring in Europe I would say.
If you want to visit Dubai and enjoy the beach and warm temperatures all day long, I suggest you come towards the end of winter (April – May) when temperatures rise, but are still manageable.
DO YOU HAVE TO DRESS CONSERVATIVELY IN DUBAI ? NO BUT …
I always find it surprising considering the international exposure Dubai has, but I still get that question a lot.
Native Emiraties are still pretty conservative and while in public, many wear traditional and conservative clothing. Men wear a long white shirt (knows as kandura), often with a white scarf covering their head, and ladies wear a long black dress worn above their clothes (knows as abbaya) and a hijab, a scarf covering their hair. Of course, tradition and fashion are always evolving, and more and more young Emiratis wear western clothes, and you might even see young ladies wearing their abbaya open over their fashionable outfit, and their headscarf loosely placed on their head.
Now when it comes to foreigners, there is no rules except the common sense rule, that should apply anywhere one goes : common decency and respect for local culture. In that regard, I would recommend to dress slightly more conservatively than usual wherever you have chances to be around lots of locals (like the malls) or visit less privileged parts of Dubai (Deira, the Souks …). But don’t worry a short and a top can do, just not the mini kind that shows half your butt ! (Unsolicited personal opinion : Those should be banned for ever anyway).
However you should know that if you want to visit a mosque in Dubai, you should be covered with long pants (preferably a little loose), long sleeves, and a headscarf. If for any reason you have a to visit an official building, I would also recommend being dressed decently. I don’t think you would get into any kind of trouble but you might get frown upon. In my work capacity, I was once almost denied entry to a semi official building because I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and no jacket!
While all the above is true during day time, and in the city, Dubai expats tends to go wild at the beach and to go out dining and clubbing! In both cases, no rule apply and I am often shocked at the “sexyness” on display (Being politically correct here!). I quickly realised that no matter what I wear, I can never be overdressed or over-sexy in Dubai!
In conclusion, just bring regular clothes, and be decent!
IS EVERYONE RICH IN DUBAI ? NO
The UAE is ranked #14 in the world GDP per capita. As a comparison, France, my home country, is ranked 39 and the USA is ranked 20. So it is fair to say that the country is quite rich, and so is his native population.
From a foreigner point of view, salaries in the corporate world are significantly higher than in most countries, and completely tax free. However it is important to not forget the cost of living is also very high in Dubai. Rent, shopping and dining out are all extremely expensive.
But in the UAE, the wage gap is also extreme… Millions of foreigners from South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines mostly), earn as little as 200 USD / month for construction workers, 300 USD for a full time maid etc. This is the much less glamorous side of the city, and it shouldn’t not be forgotten. Indeed, none of the comfort that we western expats have, would be possible without their hard work.
As for the local population, I am still unsure how it goes. While some of them work for public entities, it is rare to encounter Emiratis in the private sector. Emirati families receive large living allowances from the government, but I have no idea how it actually works … Still a lot to learn on that side.
IS IT REALLY TAX FREE ? YES BUT …
One of the many advantage of living in Dubai is definitely the absence of income tax. The salary you negotiate with your company is the salary you get, net! Lots of people, especially my French friends, struggle with the concept itself, yet it is all true ! No catch … or almost
There is a lot of hidden taxes in Dubai. A couple of examples are the 10% added taxes on hotel and restaurant bills, and the 5% municipally tax payed on rent. Moreover, the UAE introduced 5% VAT in January 2018, so the cost of pretty much everything is going up by 5% or more.
IS DUBAI EXPENSIVE FOR TOURISTS ? YES
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is definitely what I like the least about Dubai : the cost of living!
Aside from the groceries (at Carrefour, forget about Waitrose!) and the taxis, I find everything else outrageously expensive! Obviously it all depends where you come from and what kind of lifestyle you have or want to have. In Singapore, I was really use to go out several times a week, for drinks and dinner and I would lunch out every single day. Now in Dubai, I barely ever go out for dinner and if I still indulge in lunching out several times a week, I am also trying to cut on that.
And yes F&B is already quite expensive in Singapore but at least there is wide range of options. Sometimes we would get some sates and Tiger beers at the food court and that would be cheap and awesome, and sometimes we would go to the latest hipe restaurant and it would be expensive but super cool! In Dubai, I find most of the restaurants to be too fancy and too expensive. Count a minimum of 100 USD / pax for a dinner out, excluding alcohol.
Dubai also has the reputation to be a shopping paradise … whyyyy ? To be honest it is probably because the brand penetration is so high in Dubai. You can find almost everything here, so I guess depending of where you come in the world, it is pretty exciting. But for me, the French, paying about 30% more than I would back home, really doesn’t make sense.
CAN YOU RINK ALCOHOL IN DUBAI ? YES BUT…
I am not sure anyone still believes Dubai is a dry country, but just in case, here is how it goes.
Alcohol is not available in Dubai the same way it is in most countries.
Bars and restaurants need to be licensed to sell alcohol, and these licenses used to be granted exclusively to hotels, but nowadays more and more restaurants manage to get an alcohol license without being part of an hotel. If you have a doubt, just give the restaurant a call to ask if they are licensed.
On the retail side, only selected outlets sell alcohol, and you need a license to purchase from them. These licenses can only be granted through the company you work for and are linked to your residence. So as a tourist, you won’t be able to just go buy some beers or wine at the nearest store. However, you can easily purchase alcohol at the airport upon arrival, the import allowance being quite large.
3 more things to keep in mind : Alcohol is outrageously expensive in Dubai, there is a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving, and you shouldn’t be drinking in public places. Just don’t do it.
CAN YOU EAT DURING RAMADAN ? YES
Maybe I should start with a short explanation of what Ramadan actually is.
Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and celebrates the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. Fasting from sunrise to sunset is one of the Five pillars of Islam that muslims are encouraged to follow. The other 4 pillars being : Faith, Prayer, Charity, and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. During one month, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during daylight time, but also generally refrain for any “sinful” behaviour. It is also a month of introspection and charity towards other.
How is life going to be during Ramadan? That was one of the question I had when moving to Dubai. Well, actually for non muslims, life goes on during Ramadan. Lots of restaurant remain open, but cover their windows and their entrance with blinds, or room dividers … so that non muslim can have lunch / dinner inside, without ‘offending’ anyone passing by. After dawn, it is business as usual, with most of the restaurants serving alcohol.
The most important thing to remember is to be respectful. Wether you are in the office, in the street, in the mall, do not eat or drink in public during Ramadan. Find a private place or an opened restaurant and eat out of the world’s eye, or you risk a serious fine.
Ramadan is actually a confortable month for non muslim as offices usually close a couple of hours earlier than usual, and business is overall slowed down. But as a tourist, it is a bit inconvenient, so you might want to schedule your visit an other time.
If you happen to visit Dubai anyway, make sure to attend an Iftar, the fast breaking meal. There are stunning buffets organised all around Dubai, offering delicious food often in an incredible 1001 nights setting. A must do for a taste of Dubai opulent tradition.
ISN’T DUBAI BORING ? NO BUT…
I had to answer this question more times than I can remember! It generally comes in the form of “What do you do during the weekend ? Do you go to the mall ?” And the answer is YES, I sometime go to the mall, BUT not always!
I am definitely not an overactive person, so I don’t really feel the need to plan 20 activities over the week-end, but here is what my regular weekend looks like : Sleeping in the morning, followed by breakfast : sometimes homemade, sometimes delivered (yes there is such a thing as breakfast delivery), sometimes at a brunch place or a coffee shop (find my favourite breakfast places here.
While my boyfriend often goes to golf, I try to get some yoga done, or hit the gym. During winter/spring/fall you can spend the afternoon at the beach! I also usually drag my bf to do groceries, and we often end up at the movie on Saturday night.
If you are an art lover, you can visit Al Serkal Avenues, Dubai art hub, or the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, among many other things. Since Dubai Opera opened, there is also beautiful ballets, opera and concerts to see ! If you are a nature lover, just hop into your car and drive inland for a desert barbecue or chill on some beautiful beaches in Ajman or Fujairah.
And naturally, if you are willing to fly you can also have amazing weekend gateway in countries such as Oman and Sri Lanka. I will write an article on this soon.
As a conclusion, Dubai isn’t boring at all, but you will have a different life than you have home in Paris, in NYC or elsewhere … but after all isn’t why we left in the first place ? To have a different life?
Today I feel generous so I will throw in one more thing you should know about Dubai :
DO YOU REALLY WORK ON SUNDAY ? YES !
Let’s put this to bed once and for all : YES we work on Sunday, YES it is weird at first, but YES I got used to it.
Historically many Muslim countries had Thursday – Friday weekends, Friday being the day of prayer. However, over time most of the countries moved to Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday weekends, to be more aligned with international practices and have more business time in common with international companies.
So in Dubai, we work Sunday to Thursday. It is a little weird at first, and I used to get very confused with my calendar, but it gets better with time. The only thing that matters is I still work 5 days a week, and at least I have 1 day in common with my friends around the world for some Skype time!
To go further, check out AdventureFaktory an awesome blog with a lot of content about living in Dubai.
Voila, I hope now you know more about Dubai If you have any question, or comments, drop me a message below, I would be glad to discuss. And if you find the article interesting, feel free to share it ! Sharing is caring!