View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What to Wear in the United Arab Emirates

Most Googled Question
‘What do I wear in the United Arab Emirates?’ is one of the most Googled questions that brings searchers to this web site. (The link to this article is given later in this posting.)

Wear Your Own Clothes
Virginia Moncrieff, a Western journalist writing (13 May 2009) about going to work in India, kicked off her Huffington Post article in this way:

“Sometime during my first week of work as a journalist on exchange at the Times of India (Bombay office) I strolled into the newsroom wearing an approximation of Indian dress. A long kameez (tunic) over salwar (loose pants) and a tres chic dupatta (long and wide scarf) draped elegantly, or so I thought around my neck.”

“I am not sure what response I expected (a standing ovation perhaps? sighs of appreciation? warm thanks for making an effort?) but at lunchtime one (or maybe three) of the female journos who had taken me under their wing and made me part of their club told me quite simply that I looked ‘foolish.’ At that moment I felt like an idiot.”

“Yes said my friends, westerners who come to India and dress local look like try-hards. Leave the saris (the most elegant national costume in the world, no argument entered into) and the salwars, the churidors, and kurtas to the Indians. You've got your own clothes. Please wear them.”

Some readers of her article wondered whether Virginia had not worn the local dress correctly but most said that taking on the local garb seems patronizing.

Virginia Moncrieff’s advice holds good for the UAE. One does not commonly see expats or tourists to the Emirates wearing dishdashas (men) or abayas (women) except on 2 December—UAE National Day Al-Eid al-Watani—when the locals enjoy expats wearing traditional clothes.

How to Wear Your Clothes in the UAE
Interestingly, most of the scrutiny and advice about dress has been written in relation to women.

Jeremy Williams in Don’t They Know It’s Friday?, the definitive guide to culture and etiquette in the Gulf, makes these statements:

Inept Lack of Understanding
“The wearing of very skimpy clothing in public places is widely deprecated. Regional differences in attitude are also important and specific advice should be taken. For example, tight and short clothing in Saudi Arabia, worn by either sex, is unacceptable and can result in arrest (particularly for women), whereas in Oman and the UAE such clothing would be regarded by the nationals as merely an inept lack of understanding of local customs and sensibilities.” (p22)

In a list of cultural blunders entitled ‘Stupidity’, Williams states:

“Wearing revealing clothing (especially for women off-the-shoulder or short dresses, and for men shorts and cut-away vests) in public places such as markets.” (p23)

Williams enlarges:
“As tourism increases in certain parts of the Gulf, such as Dubai, short or inappropriate clothing is increasingly seen on Westerners. The Russians are probably in the lead in this respect although Britons and Germans, especially those on package tours, are not far behind.”

“'Inappropriate' in this context means the wrong clothing (such as tight T-shirts, bathing costumes, bikinis, short dresses, off-the-shoulder dresses with shoulders and arms fully revealed, and cut-away vests and shorts) worn in public places such as shopping areas and supermarkets.”

“Where tourism exists in the Gulf, holidaymakers should wear holiday clothing in holiday places, e.g. within the confines of hotel areas, pools or the beach, not in the souq (market) or other public places in full Muslim view.”

“Whilst there can perhaps, be some margin of forgiveness for transient visitors (such as tourists) who fail the dress code, Westerners who are resident in the Gulf cannot be excused for such behaviour since it indicates a consistently rude, even arrogant, disregard for local norms.” (p24-25)

Special Word for Managers
Don’t They Know It’s Friday? is primarily written for people wanting to do business in the Gulf and in this regard the author has a word for managers:

“Managers who visit their Gulf-resident staff should take heed if their staff are casual in their choice of clothing in public: if staff cannot respond even to this most simple of local sensitivities, what other more sophisticated aspects of local affairs are they failing to grasp on behalf of the company? Respect local traditions; do not place the host nation at risk of condemnation from neighbouring Gulf countries or influential Islamic individuals; understand that the Gulf is a small village in terms of its peoples' ability and wish to observe and maintain close contact with one another. If one part of the Gulf grants too much licence in Westernised behaviour it will quickly be known and commented on elsewhere in the Gulf (and in the wider Arab and Islamic worlds). Foreigners who dress scantily in public in the Gulf are therefore particularly tactless, and obviously so.” (p25-26)

Modesty During Ramadan
Regarding dress codes during the holy month of Ramadan Jeremy Williams warns:
“A Western woman should, as always in the Gulf, dress modestly i.e. she should not wear a short skirt or have bare arms. It is singularly insensitive to wear such clothing during Ramadan.” (p114)

Business Dress
Erring on the side of caution and conservatism Jeremy Williams has a word about dress and demeanour in a business situation in the Gulf:

“As a general rule a business visitor [men] should dress well, in a good suit and tie, be patient, be on time, expect to wait, and not be overly demonstrative in personality or mannerism. Businesswomen should dress accordingly but with slightly lower hemlines than in the West and with the shoulders and arms covered down to the wrist.” (p58)

Earlier Article
Further information about dressing in the United Arab Emirates can be found in my earlier article, What to Wear in the UAE.

Related Articles for Travellers and Newcomers
Bodies, Bikinis and Breast Feeding in the UAE, ETE.
Etiquette in the Emirates, ETE.
‘Sex on the Beach’ Case is Tarnishing UAE as Holiday Destination, ETE.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Different dress codes.