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What’s it like for expat women living and working in Dubai?

With more expats than locals living in the UAE, moving to Dubai seems to appeal to a lot of people. But relocating to a conservative environment where the population is 72% male1 could be considered quite daunting for some women. What cultural changes are you likely to face? Will you be treated differently to your male counterparts?

Our guide will give you some insight into both the city’s customs and regulations regarding gender when living in Dubai.

Barriers

In our International Workforce Well-Being Survey 2019, we asked expats if certain personal characteristics or profiles created barriers to settling in to a country. Along with India, Thailand and the UK, the UAE received some of the highest respondent rates.

Globally, respondents indicated that barriers to settling into their host country included: gender, ethnicity, personal life choices, openness to integrating, marital status, sexual orientation and religion. Gender was also the dominant factor for causing issues across the board, regardless of the respondents’ geographic location.

However, it was also reported that the UAE has some of the most positive views towards expats. In the 2018 Aetna International Expat Experiences Survey, the residents of Dubai who took part in the survey stated that they considered expats to be an ‘important’ and ‘vital’ part of the population — this makes sense, considering expats account for 85% of the population2. So, if you plan on moving to Dubai, you should be made to feel welcome.

Female businesswoman talking on cell phone along Dubai waterfront Female businesswoman talking on cell phone along Dubai waterfront


Job opportunities

It is no secret that the working world can be difficult for women. Many women feel they are not offered the same opportunities or promotions as men, and that the glass ceiling — a term coined to represent an unofficially acknowledged barrier to professional advancement, particularly affecting women and members of minorities — is prohibiting fair pay for all around the world.

Can women work in Dubai?

A common misconception that people often have is that women can’t work in Dubai. In fact, the opposite is true; women can work in Dubai and many who do would claim the opportunities are better than many places in the West.3

Despite traditional gender roles in the Middle East4 — men being the breadwinners and women taking care of the home — expats are not expected to do the same. The influence of foreign nationals in Dubai is shifting the role women play from looking after the home and family to being part of the workforce. However, with three-quarters of the population being male, many industries are still dominated by men.

Expat women in Dubai can either work with their own employment visa or, if their residence visa is sponsored by their husband, they can apply for work and secure a work permit via their new employer.

Smiling Asian woman using laptop on Dubai waterfront Smiling Asian woman using laptop on Dubai waterfront


Dress code

Modest dress, such as keeping your shoulders covered, is required in most of the UAE, although it is a misconception that women must be fully covered in public. The country’s most populated emirate, Dubai, is known to be slightly more liberal than the rest of the country — you may find many female tourists walking around in shorts or exposing their shoulders. However, if you travel around the UAE, and especially if you visit a place of worship, you should research what to wear first.

Dress codes in shopping malls

The dress code in malls is similar to the dress code in the majority of Dubai: modest. It is advisable to wear something that covers your shoulders, midriff and back, and the top of your legs, although it is common to see expats and tourists wearing less. Due to the air conditioning in malls, you may choose to cover yourself more for warmth anyway.

Beach or pool

When on private beaches or in hotel pools in the emirate, you are free to wear swimming costumes or bikinis — not dissimilar to what you would wear at home.

It is also worth considering what to wear when near the beach, such as when you’re travelling back home or going to bars or restaurants. You should wear something to cover your swimwear and shoulders, such as a kaftan.

Restaurant, bar or club

The dress codes in restaurants, bars and clubs can vary. You may find you are free to wear shorter hem lines and expose more skin in many places, but it is worth checking with the establishment ahead of time.

Mosque

If visiting a mosque in Dubai, women should cover their hair, as well as all their arms and legs. Clothing should also be loose fitting and shoes should be removed before entering the mosque.

Travelling around

Can women drive in Dubai?

Yes, women are allowed to drive in Dubai. The UAE’s neighbouring nation, Saudi Arabia, recently lifted its driving ban on women. Prior to this, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that banned women from driving.

To find out more about driving in Dubai, read our guide here.

Metro

The city’s metro offers a women-and-children-only carriage. For some, this separation has created a private and comfortable space5, especially during the hot summer weather. However, for others, the cabin has caused confusion and unease. The women-only cabins do not have to be used — women are allowed to travel in the mixed-gender carriages.

Muslim female friends walking through an airport together Muslim female friends walking through an airport together


How are women treated in Dubai?

There are a few customs in Dubai and the UAE that may see women treated differently to men. Men and women working in Dubai may find they are not offered handshakes6 due to religious reasons, but women more so.

The city offers many women-only areas, such as designated queues in government buildings, pools and gyms, taxis (recognisable from their pink colour) and metro carriages, as well as ladies’ nights in clubs and bars. These do not have to be used, and women can also use the non-pink taxis and attended the mixed-gender bars.

Laws to consider

There are a few laws that should be considered before the big move to Dubai.

The UAE advises not to be too affectionate when in public7 — handholding is fine, but long kisses and hugs are not. Being gay is illegal in the country.

Sex before marriage is also illegal, and there have been cases in which couples have been in trouble with the police for being pregnant outside of marriage8. This is something to consider for both single women in Dubai and those with partners they are not married to.

It is illegal to live with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or closely related.

If you’re relocating to the UAE or Dubai, you may want an international health insurance policy. Learn more about what health care is like in the UAE with our expat’s guide to medical treatment in Dubai.

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