The single biggest thing that anyone needs to keep in mind when visiting or living in the UAE is that it’s a Muslim country. Sure, Dubai is known for being more liberal and tolerant than its neighbours, but this freedom shouldn’t be expected, or taken for granted. Recent crackdowns on foreigners flauting the rules have been plastered in the press around the world and whether people agree with it or not, they are the rules. 

Dubai demographics

Emiratis make up less than 20 per cent of the total population of Dubai, which comes as a shock to many people. The bulk of the population comes from the Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), while the rest comes from other Middle Eastern countries (particularly Lebanon and Egypt) and Western countries (mostly the UK, but also South Africa, Australia and Canada). There is also a significant number of people from the Philippines working in hospitality and retail.

Most nationalities socialise within their cultural circles and you will rarely find Emiratis, especially women, spending their free time with those from other countries. In fact, your interaction with Emiratis will most probably be confined to the passport check at the airport and any visits that you make to government offices.

The official language of the UAE is Arabic but English is the most commonly spoken. You will also regularly hear Hindi, Urdu and Filipino.

Spending your free time

One of the most popular institutions for Western expats is the Friday brunch – an all-you-can-eat-and-drink fest which starts around midday and officially ends around 4pm, but usually kicks on until the last person drops. Held every Friday at hotel restaurants throughout the city, brunches range from the cheap and cheerful (Dhs80 at Waxy O’Connors) to the ultimate in five-star indulgence (Dhs550 at The Fairmont Dubai with unlimited Moet and cocktails).

During the winter, Dubai is a haven for sun worshippers. With temperatures reflecting those of an English summer, it’s a glorious place to be at that time of the year. People usually head indoors once the summer kicks in and the temps approach 50C.

Laws and customs

The laws of the country are based on Islam, which means there are quite substantial differences to the laws of Western countries and the punishment can vary quite considerably to what is dished out in the West. The main things that concern Western expats relate to alcohol and relations with the opposite sex.

It is illegal to be drunk in public, but alcohol is freely served in licensed hotels and it is fine for expats to drink. Alcohol – heavily taxed, of course – can be bought at a store if you have an alcohol licence, but this can only be obtained with the permission of your employer and landlord.

There is zero tolerance when it comes to drinking and driving, so if you are caught driving with any level of alcohol in your blood expect a jail sentence. 

Homosexuality is illegal in the UAE, however there is apparently an active underground gay network. Just be aware that it is illegal and those caught engaging in homosexual acts are likely to be treated harshly.

While nowhere near as strict as other countries in the Middle East, public displays of affection are frowned upon. Although you might find couples holding hands, it is still an offence, and it is also considered criminal to kiss in public or have sex outside marriage. Needless to say, if you are found having sex or performing sexual acts, you can say goodbye to your freedom in Dubai. Reserve the fun for the privacy of your own home and you should not find yourself in trouble.