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Dos and Don’ts of being a new expat in Dubai

Dos and Don’ts of being a new expat in Dubai

It should come as no surprise that Dubai has been rapidly growing economically, industrially, and in popularity over the past few decades. So much so that it’s become an attractive city to move to and work in as an expat. There has been a boom in business and many companies have affiliations which make it very feasible to move from the UK, for example, to a Dubai office. As a result, approximately 70% of Dubai’s population is made up of expatriates. While the prospect of moving to the fast-developing city is very exciting, there are a few things to bear in mind – there are some customs which are very different to the Western world, so read on to avoid being an oh-so-obvious newbie in Dubai.


General etiquette in Dubai may be the biggest thing to get used to. The little things we do each day when interacting with people and the manner in which we conduct ourselves are some of the hardest things to shake when moving to a new place with different customs. For example, when greeting people for the first time, you might instinctively extend your hand for a handshake. This isn’t the done thing in Dubai. Especially when greeting a member of the opposite sex. As a newcomer to the city, it’s best to wait for the other person to extend their hand or not, and act accordingly. Body contact isn’t really part of the culture in Dubai, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and minimise body contact as much as possible (at first, anyway – you’ll get used to the customs after a while).


On a related note, the way hand gestures are performed/viewed in something to bear in mind. Attitudes towards hand gestures aren’t very different to the West, it’s just the ramifications are potentially much worse. For example, pointing or beckoning with one finger is seen as very rude, just like in the West, and is a big no-no. If you need to gesture, use your whole hand. Any rude hand gestures made in public, where they are strongly frowned upon in the West, can land you in prison in Dubai. The moral of the story is: just don’t be rude.

There are also a number of gestures used in the West that mean different things in the Middle East. You can take a look at some of the common ones here. (Don’t give someone a thumbs up, whatever you do!)


Clothing, and attitudes towards it, is another area which may differ vastly from what you’re used to in the West. Aside from being on certain beaches and around private pools, swimwear and the like is completely unacceptable – no matter how hot the weather is! Shorts and t-shirts, however, are acceptable in most places, so unless you have a desperate need to go shirtless/with a bikini, you shouldn’t feel particularly restricted by this custom. The only places where shorts and t-shirts are unacceptable are religious places and historical areas in the city. In this sense, it’s not dissimilar from visiting Vatican City.


Let’s change up the tone and talk about things you can do (it’s all been a bit negative so far). The weather in Dubai is incredible (depending on your preferences, of course). Lots of sunshine, high temperatures, little rainfall. The summer months can be a little too hot for many people, but having a climate like Dubai’s allows for activities and experiences that aren’t available in many other places in the world (especially if you’re from the UK).

You can go from exploring a vast desert to being poolside, sipping a refreshing cold beverage in 30 minutes. You can go on an authentic safari, do an afternoon’s shopping is some of the biggest and most luxurious malls in the world, and spend the evening watching a beautiful star-lit sky – all in one day. Now that’s something you should definitely experience. Immerse yourself in the culture as soon as you can – the sooner you do, the sooner the city will come alive and start to feel like home. Just remember to dress appropriately – for the heat and for the culture.


Something else that will probably take you a little time to get used to is the luxury items that many people own in the city. From clothing and jewellery to sports cars and houses, Dubai is one of the epicentres of wealth and lavish tastes, and you might not quite fit in with this aspect of the culture. You shouldn’t let this phase you, however, lot’s of people will be in the same position as you and it’s just something you’ll get used to. In London you get used to red telephone boxes and black cabs, in Paris you get used to cafés, and in Dubai you get used to gold and sports cars (or even gold sports cars!).


Arguably the biggest differences between Dubai and the West (generally speaking) fall under the category we would call ‘lifestyle’. Certain activities and ways of living are often acceptable or even the norm in the West, but are considered crimes and can even lead to prison time in Dubai. So, these are things you really need to be mindful of as a new expat.

The possession and use of drugs, cohabitation, sex outside of marriage, having children outside of marriage, adultery, and homosexuality are all illegal in Dubai (as of October 2017). Of course, drugs being illegal isn’t strange or dissimilar to the West (although attitudes are changing with respect to marijuana), but the others are considered normal and part of everyday life in most of the Western world. Of course, we aren’t going to pretend that there isn’t prejudice and discrimination towards homosexuality and having sex/children outside of marriage, but the law is now on their side in the majority of the Western world, with equal marriage rights and child custody rights supported legally.

In many ways, the lifestyle in Dubai is probably less different than you’d imagine from the way it’s portrayed in the media. It’s a tourist-friendly, diverse city with some of the most modern and unique facilities in the world. Law enforcement may be harsher than you’re used to but for the most part there are more similarities than differences. There’s a vast amount to experience as an expat in Dubai, and living there will be an unforgettable experience.

This may seem like a lot to take in, but you’ll get used to it pretty quickly and it’ll become the norm for you in no time. Just be open-minded and considerate, and remember to enjoy your new adventure in Dubai. If you are taking the plunge and need to transfer money overseas, you know where to find us!


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