When we tripped to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, what to wear in the Middle East was the aspect I probably researched the most. I’m no fashion plate, but as a female travelling into a conservative country that has quite strong views on what is acceptable to wear, I fretted about what was suitable to throw into my suitcase.
‘What do I wear to the Middle East’ is something I get asked a lot – and I’ve been meaning to write this post for an age. Normally I roll with smart, comfortable and lightweight layers with a couple of nice dresses stashed for the evenings – but I also packed for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha with a fair amount of care to include long sleeves and cover-ups. (Our eventual destination of New Zealand each time was easy to additionally pack for – bare feet, floaty beach skirts and a single woollen Christmas Jumper for the amusement of my family enjoying 30’C summer heat.)
There are some simple guidelines to follow to be respectful of local culture and tradition, while still making the most of these unique destinations.
Just to be clear, there are no sandals with socks or bumbags in my suitcases – I like to travel like a local in most respects and on the surface I want to fit in as much as I can (to the point of being passed over on the Czech Underground by officials looking for tourists to scam, being asked for directions on my first night in Lisbon and being asked all kinds of questions in Italian – the downside to learning only a few phrases) to keep myself from being noticed by the less savoury aspects of travelling. I usually also pack a handbag (most often one of my dependable Longchamps) which helps to blend in a little and is big enough to slip my camera in.
Fascinatingly, Dubai comprises only 11% Emirati, the rest of the population is international expats and workers. One of the facts that interested me the most was our guide telling us that the families with women in head to toe black Burkhas tend to be visiting Saudi’s – the locals wear their hair uncovered, their smiles glimmer freely and they shop like whirlwinds.
From internet research and speaking with long-term expat friends, Dubai is one of the most tolerant of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi and Doha in Qatar are a little more conservative.
What to wear wandering through the Middle East malls
Try to keep your elbows and knees covered, and be warned that the malls are air-conditioned sanctuaries that require a cardigan or wrap. We did however see Western tourists wearing crop tops and hot pants, but would get side eyes from the local men. And complained about it. In a Muslim country – c’mon people. I bought a few lovely, flowy almost oriental coverups and wraps that were a perfect addition to my wardrobe.
What to wear in hotel bars and hotel restaurants
Glam it up! Technically the below mirror selfie was on my cousin’s terrace in Abu Dhabi, but it’s also what I wore for cocktails in the Jumeirah Hotel overlooking the Emirates Palace – a classic little black dress that I’d wear to any beautiful hotel in London. (I hadn’t brushed my hair for the selfie, unfortunately – I’d recommend doing that too.) In the hotel bars and restaurants, there is a definite lenience in hem length, and most expats enjoy hanging out in the big hotels and using the luxurious lounges as an excuse to wear their most fabulous, short, clingy dresses that they don’t get away with in public life.
What to wear at your hotel/poolside/on private beaches
Honestly, from what I saw you can wear most anything. Or almost nothing in a few cases…
What to wear in Dubai: On Desert Safari
During the day; light coloured, loose layers that breathe. Modesty and comfort are the watchwords in the dry heat of the shifting sands – though it might be less instagrammable than a mini-skirt…
During the evening (we stayed overnight in a luxurious Bedouin camp at the edge of a Sheikh’s summer home); it gets cold once the sun sets below the horizon and the wind rustles across the dunes. I prefer multiple thinner layers – air pockets between the layers capture your body heat more. Oh, and if you stay overnight, fluffy warm pyjamas and socks are an absolute must.
And yes, even in the desert, I still wore one of my trademark scarves.
What to wear visiting a mosque
We only visited the Grand Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi (we spent four hours there, it is just so beautiful) and all women are required to be cover their hair and wear modest clothes, covering everything bar their hands and faces. Luckily, they have Abayas that you can borrow (they’ll hold your photo ID as a guarantee of return) and slip on over your clothes.
Oh, and you may be asked to take off your shoes when walking over the fabulous carpets and marble courtyards, so I would absolutely take socks.
It was really interesting to see what local Temple goers wore as well – some of their outfits were so beautiful.
What to wear at a beach expat party
Literally anything goes once you’ve walked into the nominated private hotel areas – from bikinis to suits.
Touristy Henna tattoos are totally optional.
Hopefully that helps you to decipher what to wear in the Middle East – if not, please leave questions below!
If you fancy reading a little more about those escapades; you can find our Dubai recommendations here, our adventures in Abu Dhabi here and the days I spent in Doha here. Nb: there isn’t much beach lounging in them…
< Pin for later Middle Eastern adventures >