First off, understand that traveling as a woman in the U.A.E. is completely different than traveling in Western countries, especially when you are alone. Women, especially foreigners, do not have a voice like the one we have in the United States. Women are held to more conservative expectations in this Muslim nation. As strange as it might feel, if you are planning a trip to the U.A.E., it might be prudent to leave the sass back in the States, bite your tongue, and simply lay low. Traveling as a woman in the U.A.E. doesn’t have to be hard. You simply have to be knowledgeable and respectful of their customs and laws. With that said, I found Dubai to be much more tolerant than Abu Dhabi, and would much prefer to return to Dubai for all that it offers.
1. Dress appropriately
Not only is it extremely challenging to find a way to dress modestly in extremely hot and humid weather, you will find that offending the locals, and having to deal with the authorities will pose as a larger headache. It is simply not worth the hassle to not cover up, no matter how hot you will get. Not abiding by their practices and wanting to assert your right as a strong female in the U.A.E. will do you more harm than good.
There are signs of required dress codes placed outside of businesses and malls that will not allow entry if your shoulders or knees are exposed. Dubai is said to be more tolerant than Abu Dhabi, and I found that to be true in my experience, since they have a larger influx of expats. I also find that lightweight shawls or a scarves come in handy, and fit right into a purse. If someone expresses discomfort with your attire, thank them, and try to accommodate. Having the police called on you is simply not worth it. You simply do not have the rights in their country, and as I quote the Abu Dhabi Airport Customs Manager, “This is my country, my rules, and I do what I want to you.” Do you really want to deal with that?
2. Do not be overly friendly
Just like in any country, it is wise to be cautious when traveling as a woman in the U.A.E. There is no need for that Southern charm, or to be folksy. Some men might take your overt gestures or friendly mannerisms to be an open invitation to much more. I find that wearing a wedding ring and resting bitch face might help in social situations to avoid unwanted attention, or proposals. Beware of who approaches you for conversation as well. There are men that will approach you pretending to solicit for drugs to get you in trouble (This happened outside of Abu Dhabi International Airport.)
3. Limit alcohol consumption & provocative dance
As a muslim country, the mass population of the U.A.E. does not consume alcohol. Bars and clubs typically close around 1 a.m., and some hotels don’t even serve alcohol. If you are under the influence and get obnoxious after hours, you may get arrested. There is also zero tolerance for driving under the influence, and even being a passenger under the influence. Entering a club or a bar alone as a woman, let alone dancing provocatively might lead to more trouble than it’s worth. Having a problem with prostitution in Dubai, you might get unwanted encounters, and be mistaken for a prostitute (highly illegal, by the way).
4. Restrict public display of affection
Kissing and touching, even between spouses, is not allowed in the public sphere, and is important to keep in mind of the cultural difference when traveling as a woman in the U.A.E. Hugging is limited to a simple and quick embrace, and only married couples are allowed to stay in hotels together, so real or not, keep that wedding ring on, and save the affection for behind closed doors.
5. Travel in the Winter months
Summertime in the U.A.E. is no joke, and the temperatures will skyrocket and make for traveling as a woman in the U.A.E. that much harder. To avoid melting like a stick of Crayola on the sidewalk, bring light fibered, fast-drying clothing. Make sure to hang on to that scarf, cause it will come in handy, whether it be shading you from the sun, or keeping the dust out of your face, or simply covering your shoulders with minimal fabric. Keep water on you at all times to prevent dehydration.
There are many options for getting around when traveling as a woman in the U.A.E. You can take the metro, the bus, or a taxi. My personal favorite is using Careem, which is the Uber/Lyft of the U.A.E. However, it is logical to compare fares before booking your ride. You can also take pink taxis with women dressed in pink uniforms that are exclusive for female passengers and boys under the age of 10.
For longer distances, taking a bus will be more cost-effective. Beware that there is a segregation of lines for males and females when purchasing a bus ticket at the bus station. If you plan on driving a car, keep in mind to practice extra caution and that the majority of drivers in the U.A.E. are comprised of foreigners that often bring their erratic driving habits to the U.A.E. Make sure to check the vehicle prior to renting to not get scammed into paying for damages you did not make. Traffic can be horrendous in the U.A.E. as well, and inevitably you will want to pass a car on your drive. Note that male drivers might try to pass you after because you are female. Just let it go.
7. Traveling with medication
Your medication might be considered a controlled substance in the U.A.E. Make sure to bring a copy of the prescription you are taking, and a doctor’s note indicating the use of it to avoid being charged for using or carrying a controlled substance. The airport customs in Abu Dhabi even gave me a hard time for having a box of DayQuil/Nyquil (cold & flu medicine), and health supplements.
It is generally relatively safe to walk around the U.A.E. alone as a woman. However, you might find yourself getting hassled by men continuously, so be assertive, and seek help loudly from authorities if necessary to scare them away. Wear a wedding band to deter unwanted advances from men, because the men will fear disrespecting your male spouse, and not you.
There are unbelievably high rates of death per vehicle in the world in Dubai, with more than half being pedestrians. Traffic laws and signals are not always obeyed or clear, and cars might seem to come at you in every direction, so keep a close watch on incoming traffic, even if it is your right of way.
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