Dubai is much more like Shanghai, with its audacious architecture, spectacular skylines, obsession with fashion and style, and flourishing contemporary art scene. Contrary to rumours, Dubai does have a rich culture, though most of it is intangible, rooted in Bedouin heritage and traditions of storytelling, poetry, song, dance, and falconry, but there are plenty of opportunities to experience it.
For all Dubai’s futuristic appeal and abundance of western entertainments – a sleek metro that zips through the sky like something out of Blade Runner, sumptuous shopping malls, an indoor ski park, and countless bars – there is just as much fun to be had in the simple pleasures of “the Orient”: haggling for gold and frankincense in the bustling souqs, savouring the sunset from the back of a camel, inhaling from a fragrant sheesha pipe on the fairly-lit deck of an old wooden dhow. Perhaps there is, after all, some truth to be found in the clichés…
When to go
Dubai is steamy and sweltering most of the year. Best time to visit is November-March, when temperatures are moderate – though in the past few years, January, once considered the optimum month to visit, has been overcast and rainy.
If you’re heading here for sun, sea and sand, spring and autumn are ideal, when you can bronze your body by day and cool down after dark in the air-conditioned restaurants, bars and shopping malls.
Summer, while blistering, is increasingly proving popular with budget travellers and families for the bargains that can be found – it’s the cheapest time to visit, but note that from June to September the average daily temperature is well over a scorching 40 degrees Celsius.
Local laws and etiquette:
Stay at a five-star beach resort and it’s easy to forget that Dubai is an Islamic state that follows a tolerant version of Sharia law. Both Sharia and civil law courts operate, however. If you break the law, where you end up is dependent upon what you did wrong.
Islam is an important aspect of UAE daily life, even in Westernised Dubai. Emiratis adhere to Islamic codes of conduct, following the Five Pillars of Islam (ie, declaring there is no God but Allah, praying five times a day, donating to charity, fasting, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime).
If you want to be accepted and value the opportunity to befriend locals, dress modestly: women should wear skirts to the knees or longer, tops with sleeves, and nothing too tight or revealing; men should wear trousers/jeans and tops with sleeves. While you’ll see foreigners wearing less, this is highly offensive to Emiratis and it reduces your chances of meeting locals and getting the most out of your visit. Don’t even think about wearing swimwear away from the beach or hotel swimming pool. Do so and you risk being fined or, at worst, jailed.
Don’t display affection with the opposite sex in public, especially during Ramadan when it’s forbidden (along with eating and drinking in public during daylight hours); and don’t share a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex you’re not married to, unless it’s a parent or child. Both can land you in jail.
Don’t use rude gestures or swear in public, no matter how angry you might be with the guy who just cut in front of you! Again, this can get you in serious trouble in Dubai.
It is against the law to drink in public, or to be intoxicated in public; so always take a taxi directly to the hotel after clubbing or boozing at a pub. Alcohol is available in hotel and club restaurants and bars; restaurants outside hotels are not allowed to serve alcoholic beverages.
Never shake hands with an Emirati woman unless she offers her hand first, and don’t photograph women without permission.
f visiting someone’s home, remove your shoes at the door, don’t show the soles of your feet when sitting down, and avoid eating with your left hand.
The weekend in Dubai/UAE is Friday and Saturday. Most people have Friday (prayer day) off, which feels like Sunday in the UK, while some people work a half or full day on Saturday. Opening “timings” are always fixed to business doors/windows. Supermarkets such as Carrefour and Spinneys tend to open 8am-10pm daily, although times can vary between branches, while shopping malls open 10am-10pm daily. Smaller suburban malls, independent shops and souq stalls close from around 1pm to 4pm/5pm and don’t open until 4pm/5pm on Fridays (day of worship).
Don’t photograph Sheikhs’ palaces, police stations, military buildings, ports or airports.