Known as the Middle Eastern 'Capital of Excess', Dubai is sure to be one of the strangest places you'll ever visit. An island of debauchery in an otherwise conservative area, it doesn't require a lot of time (hence its reputation as a 'stopover city') but is worth exploring at least once.
The first thing you need to know about Dubai is that its new. The city itself has technically been around since 3000 BCE but the global metropolis we know of today has only only really come to be in the last 30 years. Oil was discovered in 1966 but the real turning point in Dubai's trajectory happened after the Gulf War, when Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum ascended the throne and began to foster political alignment with the Western world. As oil prices rose and the region became increasingly more affluent they focused heavily on construction.
Unique building projects like the Burj Al Arab, the world's tallest hotel, and the Palm Islands, a series of man made islands in the shape of a date palm, have helped to establish Dubai's reputation as a global leader in luxury and innovation.
Another unique aspect of the city, is that very few people who live in Dubai are actually from Dubai.
As a pair of American observers put it, Dubai is a city where “everyone and everything in it — its luxuries, laborers, architects, accents, even its aspirations — was flown in from someplace else.”-A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
With a population of 37% immigrants, we think of New York as a global city. Compared to Dubai, where a staggering 96% are foreign born, New York seems downright provincial. Life in Dubai is dominated by expats, your odds of meeting a true local are low, unless you step outside the main drag into the souks of old Dubai.
Step away from the skyscrapers and malls into Old Dubai and you'll find mosques, markets, small restaurants and souks that are far more interesting than the hotel bars and western stores the city has become famous for. If you are limited on time, I think Naif Souk and the Gold Souk are most interesting.
The last, and most important,thing you should know about Dubai is that it is not a democracy and it falls Sharia law which can be quite different from western laws.
Laws Tourists Should Be Aware Of
There is zero tolerance for drugs-related offenses. The penalties for trafficking, smuggling and possession of drugs (even residual amounts) are severe, (including the death penalty! ) and possession of even the smallest amount of illegal drugs can lead to a minimum four year jail sentence. Presence of drugs in the blood stream is also counted as possession so be cautious of your activities before entering the country as well.
Alcoholic drinks are served at hotels and clubs but it is a punishable offense to be visibly intoxicated in public.
You will see tourists in a wide variety of dress styles (some quite scandalous) but its smart to err on the side of being more conservative, especially when outside private resort areas. Women should ensure their garments reach at least to the knee and men must wear shirts in public.
Public displays of affection are discouraged and there have been a few incidents of arrest for kissing.
All sex outside marriage is illegal. If the authorities become aware of such activity you run the risk of prosecution, imprisonment, fine, or deportation.
It is against the law to share a hotel room (or apartment) with someone of the opposite sex who isn't a direct relative or spouse.
Photography of certain government and military buildings is forbidden, and you should never take someone's photo without their permission.
Posting material online that is critical of the government is a punishable offense.
Honestly Dubai is far less strict than you've likely been to led to believe, but its always best to err on the side of caution and to abide by the laws of whatever country you are visiting as a sign of respect.