Evening view of illuminated Gate of the World at Global Village 2015 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo)
Unless you’re a committed cynic, it’s hard not to be impressed by the United Arab Emirates’ flashy, manmade marvels — from Abu Dhabi’s 82-dome Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to the Burj Khalifa, which pierces Dubai’s sky as the world’s tallest building. Remarkably, the country was but a modest federation of desert outposts less than 50 years ago, and those wishing to glimpse behind the glitzy facade can still experience its sand-dusted soul. Wander the labyrinthine souks (markets) or listen to the calls to prayer sound in unison. Then, the high-gloss shopping malls and theme parks feel a world away. Before you go, here are 10 essential things to know.
- Keep it conservative. The UAE is rooted in Islamic traditions, so even in cosmopolitan Dubai, do as the longtime expats do and respect the culture by dressing modestly. Men and women should wear clothing that covers the tops of arms and legs, including the knees.
- Cool it on the PDA. You can get arrested for anything more intimate than holding hands in public, and it’s against the law to share the same hotel room with someone of the opposite sex unless you’re married or closely related. Keep in mind that homosexual sex is illegal and, if you get caught, can lead to imprisonment, fines and deportation. If you’re gay and traveling with your partner, book a hotel room with two beds.
- A prayerful pause. Muslims pray five times a day, and you can hear the haunting, lyrical call to prayer broadcast from nearby mosques. Listen and enjoy, but beyond that, there are no expectations of non-Muslims. Smaller shops may close during prayer times.
- Double-check your meds. The UAE has strict, zero-tolerance anti-drug laws, and thorough searches are conducted at its airports. Even medications that are over-the-counter in some countries — those that contain codeine, for example — could get you arrested. Check the banned -substances list from a UAE consulate or embassy. And always carry a doctor’s prescription for any medication you’re bringing into the country.
- It’s hot. Yep, this is a desert climate, so even in winter, the weather is warm; in summer, it’s downright sizzling. The hottest months are July and August, when the temperature in Dubai averages around 106 F.
- Timing is everything. The most comfortable time to visit the UAE is December through February, when the temperatures typically sit in the 60s — but, of course, that’s also the time of year when flights and hotels are most expensive. Shoulder seasons, such as May and September, usually offer less heat, and many discounts are still available.
- As good as gold. The currency of the UAE is the dirham (abbreviated dh). Credit and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere, but carry cash for shopping in the souks or in smaller shops.
- Tips for tipping. Tipping is not expected, but it’s a common practice. Most restaurants add a service charge to the bill; if one doesn’t, simply tack on 10 percent to the total. The 10 percent is divided among all staff, not just wait staff, so if the wait staff was particularly good, tip a little more. Taxi drivers don’t expect to be tipped, but they’ll appreciate it if you do. (A 5 dh tip is good, or round the fare up to the nearest 5.) At hotels, bag carriers are usually tipped 2 dh.
- Sample the local flavors. Don’t miss an opportunity to try authentic Emirati and Persian Gulf cuisine, which is full of flavor with cinnamon, nutmeg and za’atar (an herbal-citrusy Middle Eastern spice blend with sesame seeds). Unless you only want to dine alongside other tourists, don’t head out before 8:30 p.m. Arabs and expats eat late, from 10 p.m. onward.
- No alcohol beyond this point. Alcohol is served in the UAE, but only within licensed hotels and clubs. It’s illegal to be under the influence of alcohol in public — and it’s not uncommon for inebriated tourists to be arrested. So if you plan to imbibe, do so within the confines of your hotel.