Things expats in Dubai should know for a happy and trouble free time

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Dubai is a great place to live. It’s easy, it’s convenient and you have a lot of freedom with how you choose to live. In fact, its such an easy place to live that you can easily forget that it is ruled in a completely different way to somewhere like Australia.

99% of the time, this does not affect anything in your daily life.  But in order to respect the local law, culture and religion, there are a few important points that expats in Dubai should know.

Many unsuspecting expats in Dubai have found themselves in a tricky situation by not finding out the facts and abiding by the law.

So, here’s a list of the ‘big ticket’ items that aren’t always immediately obvious to a new expat in Dubai. If you are thinking of relocating, make sure you take note and do your research. It’s well worth it to enjoy a happy, peaceful and trouble-free existence here.

  1. Drinking alcohol without a licence is illegal – even in your own home

Something many people aren’t aware of about Dubai is that it’s illegal to drink or serve alcohol here when you are a resident unless you have a licence. That includes when you are in your own home.

The process to get a licence is easy enough. There is a list of documents you need to provide to your local liquor store and you complete some forms. It takes about 4 weeks, and then you will get a call to go and collect your new license. From that point it is ok to purchase the legal amount of alcohol to have in your personal possession.

The amount you can purchase each month is controlled and if you go over your quota you won’t be allowed to make the purchase at the liquor stores.

Even with a licence, you need to be careful if you are on public transport or crossing borders. You aren’t supposed to have alcohol in your possession on the metro or in taxis. And some of the other Emirates, such as Sharjah, and other neighbouring countries are dry. This means you can’t have any alcohol in your possession so read up before travelling and to be safe, leave the eski at home.

  1. Don’t drink and drive

Drink driving isn’t a smart thing to do, regardless of what country you are in. However, in Dubai, it’s an especially bad idea. If you register ANY blood alcohol level while driving here the penalties are hefty. Fines, jail time and even deportation are all possible penalties.

This takes some mental adjustment when you are from a country that tolerates a certain amount of blood alcohol and you are still allowed to drive. For example, in Australia, the blood alcohol limit is 0.05 which means you can have a glass of wine or a couple of beers with dinner and still drive home.

Not in Dubai though.

It’s totally not worth it. If you get into an accident, the first thing they will do is check your blood-alcohol level and if you register anything, you are immediately at fault for the accident. This on top of other possible penalties can quickly send you broke (and that’s no exaggeration).

It’s not all bad though. Taxis are everywhere and extremely cheap. So use them and stay safe.

It’s most definitely, not worth the risk.

  1. Being intoxicated in public

So, you don’t drink anything when you know you have to drive. And you have gotten yourself a licence so you can legally drink responsibly. You’ve ticked all the boxes.

You decide to head out for a night of catching up with friends and you have a few too many.

The other thing you need to be careful of here is being intoxicated in public. Whilst it’s okay to drink alcohol when you have a licence, it’s NEVER ok to be intoxicated in public. This is completely illegal and you will find yourself in jail, fined or deported if caught.

And you need to be careful with taxis too. If you get a cab home and the taxi driver suspects that you are intoxicated, they are entitled to drive you to the nearest police station and have you arrested. The people I know of who have experienced this were so completely trollied that they were doing things like filling the backseat of the cab in ways the cab driver did not appreciate, or they were behaving in an offensive or intolerable way. This of course draws attention and should be avoided at all costs.

So, the bottom line with anything liquor related is to stay within the law, be sensible and don’t take unnecessary risks. Life is too short to spend it locked up in a Dubai jail cell.

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  1. Interpersonal relations

There’s a few things it’s important to be aware of as an expat in Dubai (or indeed a tourist) regarding interacting with other people, especially the opposite sex. And if you are unsure at all, it’s always better to confirm through the official government sites than to make assumptions based on rules in other countries.

Here’s a quick list of some of the key facts you need to know when relating with people here:

  • ‘Relations’ outside of marriage are illegal with hefty fines and jail time attached if you get caught (even if it’s completely consensual)
  • People of the opposite sex cannot live together unless they are married
  • Many Muslim women will not shake hands with a male so be respectful at work and in social settings
  • Public displays of affection are not encouraged and whilst Dubai is very liberal, it’s respectful to refrain from things like kissing and hugging in public. Holding hands is tolerated for married couples

I often get asked what it’s like being a woman here. Of course, I can only speak as a married woman as I have never been single here. But I can confidently say that I have never been in a place where I felt safer or more respected on a day to day basis.

Dubai is an Emirate that is extremely respectful of women – there are separate carriages on the trains, separate counters at government offices, even women-only taxis. As a woman who has lived here for nearly two years, I have never felt anything but absolute respect. So as a resident, I believe it’s important to understand this and respect the laws and the social fabric of the society.

  1. Ramadan

Ramadan is the most important month of the Islamic calendar. It’s a time of prayer and reflection and spending time with family. Dubai becomes quite low-key for the month and many places are closed.

The important things to remember as an expat in Dubai during Ramadan are mainly related to food and drink. There are fines associated with eating and/or drinking in public. That extends to being in your car by the way. There are still restaurants open but they will have their windows blacked out. There are also food courts open in the malls, but they are covered with temporary walls so they are closed from view.

During the Holy month, it’s also good to be respectful of everyone who is fasting and observing in other ways. It’s not a month for loud parties or gatherings during the day and  you aren’t allowed to smoke in public.

At the end of each day, when the sun sets, you hear the canon fire to signal the breaking of the fast. This is when Iftar begins. This is a special feast to mark the end of the day of fasting. This is backed up in the morning with Suhoor, the final meal before the day of fasting begins. These are both very social occasions and hotels around the city put on special feasts which anyone is welcome to join to experience Ramadan celebrations.

There is definitely a buzz in the city during the evenings in Ramadan. But during the day is very quiet. The last two Ramadans have also been during the Dubai summer months which means its extremely hot. We don’t tend to go out much during Ramadan, as it’s hard to be out in the heat when you can’t drink water and there’s not much open anyway. So I guess even for us, it’s also a month to be at home with family.

  1. What to wear

When you have been here for a while, it’s easy to think that anything goes.

And indeed, when you hang around some of the more touristy areas, you will see people wearing anything and everything. On evenings out, I’ve seen some amazing, skimpy outfits that would make even the most liberal among us blush.

However, this is an extremely conservative country and the local culture is to cover shoulders and knees as a minimum. And generally speaking, the further you get from the touristy areas, the more comfortable you feel with more clothes on.

I like to respect the local custom and I try to follow the general rule of covering knees and shoulders. And you find that everything is over-airconditioned. So you are usually grateful to have some kind of long-sleeved top and/or pashmina wherever you go both for modesty and warmth.

And believe it or not, when it’s extreme heat, it’s proven that you are better off to have a light layer on most of your skin than to be wearing minimal clothes.  That is, except when it’s humid in which case short sleeves have more benefit.

Trust me – I’ve tested it and it works. It’s easier to stay cool with a light layer on.

So whilst you may not necessarily get arrested for skimpy outfits, you may feel uncomfortable with people staring at you, or with the knowledge that you are making others uncomfortable. Err on the side of conservative is what I would recommend.expats in dubai expat in dubai

  1. Some other quirks to be aware of

There are some other good-to-knows that aren’t immediately obvious for expats in Dubai. Unfortunately, ignorance is no defence either. It’s important to be aware of as much as you can so you don’t inadvertently run into trouble.

Upcoming expats, be aware:

  • Swearing and gesturing in public are punishable by law. This includes Whatsapp messages and social media so be careful
  • Sharing videos or images of accidents is illegal
  • Publicising charity fundraisers or asking for donations online is illegal without clearance from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department
  • Taking pictures in public places and government offices is forbidden
  • Posting images of someone or their property without permission is illegal


So there you have it: a list of some of the key things expats in Dubai should be aware of when when they are here. This list is by no means exhaustive or detailed but it should help with getting a feel for some of the main rules to be aware of.

Many people have asked me if I find it too oppressive or restrictive living here.

My answer is a resounding ‘NO’.

As long as you educate yourself about the rules and don’t assume they are the same as where you are from, life as an expat in Dubai is extremely safe, peaceful and easy. It has to be, otherwise, why would so many people come here and stay here long term?

It’s pretty simple really – be informed, be smart, and be respectful.

This article is written by Emma Bennett.  Emma Bennett loves a good story. Fortunately, she has plenty of inspiration living life with other Aussie expats in Dubai and traveling the world with two young kids. She loves to tell the real stories about what can happen when you are completely out of your comfort zone and those funny, quirky moments that form long lasting memories.

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These articles have been written by an Australian Expat Investor Contributor. Please see their details in the relevant post. The views expressed in the article are his or her own and may not reflect the views of The Australian Expat Investor. If you are interested in contributing an article or story to The Australian Expat Investor please visit our contact page.

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