This guest post is by Monica Chapon, a California-based desert enthusiast.
Exploring the Middle East can often feel intimidating for travelers, and even more so for solo women.
While I personally love to travel throughout this region, I can certainly understand the hesitancy! This is a very misunderstood part of the world, and it isn’t always portrayed as very “female friendly.”
But if you are dreaming of sweeping orange dunes, spice-filled souks, intricately decorated mosques, and a glimpse into Muslim culture, then Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is the perfect place to dip your toes.
The UAE is a small country with a strong religious foundation. Islamic law dictates day-to-day life and traditions in this neighbor to Saudi Arabia. Honestly, it’s quite beautiful.
After an oil boom, Dubai quickly went from a “small town” in the desert the now-glittering hub that we see today.
Because of these fast changes, Dubai is truly a city of duality. Each time I visit, I find myself pondering the juxtaposition of towering, record-breaking skyscrapers just minutes away from hand-built, rustic camel farms in the sand.
While the UAE is one of the safest countries in the world to visit, it religious roots and rapid modernization mean that not everyone who lives and works there is accustomed to seeing a solo female traveler.
So, while I highly recommend the UAE as a great place for women who travel alone, it is not without some challenges. Below are my best insights for women traveling solo in Dubai.
Solo Female Travel in Dubai
1. Crime rates are super low.
First and foremost, know that the crime rates in Dubai are very low. Theft and violent crimes are extremely rare. In fact, the rates in the UAE are light-years better than my home country, the United States.
As such, I have never felt unsafe here in terms of crime. I’ve never had any items stolen, and I’ve never felt in danger of any type of attack. (For better or for worse, CCTV is common in downtown Dubai.)
As a solo woman in Dubai, rest assured that you are in a country where the laws are taken very seriously.
2. But you will be stared at.
Realize that while most people will not harass you in any way, you are a bit of an anomaly. Though solo female travel is not a new concept in the Western world, it is still somewhat “new” in this region.
The majority of stares you receive are simply out of curiosity. People will wonder why you are alone or where you are going, and some will just be intrigued about how “different” you may look.
Most men will look away quickly once you return their gaze, proving that it was harmless. But if anyone tries to hold your eye or use it as a reason to approach you, be cautious. Trust your gut. Balance courtesy with caution.
3. Women’s places at school, home, and work differ from those in the West.
It is worth highlighting a bit about women’s roles in Emirati society.
Schools and universities are segregated by gender, though more women attend college than their male counterparts do.
However, the vast majority of women do not enter the workforce and instead opt for marriage and raising children. The Emirati women you do see in the workforce will typically be employed in education, health, and government services. I do see a lot of expat women in the workforce, too.
While I don’t know how much of that is choice and how much is societal expectations, I will say that UAE society places a high value on those roles.
There is no denying that patriarchal ideology is still visible in UAE life, but I do applaud the small strides that the country has taken in recent years.
4. Dubai is a melting pot.
Over 80% of the population in the UAE is made up of expats, and the vast majority of them live in Dubai. Here you will find everyone, from Indians to Pakistanis to Lebanese to Canadians — and everything in between.
Dubai is a true melting pot. It is a colorful blend of many different cultures, living and working in various industries and making a life on this small piece of the Arabian Peninsula.
5. It can cost much less than you think.
You are probably familiar with Dubai’s reputation for riches.
The Burj Al-Arab hotel has a glamorous Royal Suite that goes for $24,000 USD per night. The city built several manmade islands in the shape of palm trees. And there is even an ATM in nearby Abu Dhabi where users can withdraw solid gold. Solid gold!
So, it’s not really surprising that I am often asked how I can afford to stay there.
Luckily, these extreme cases — while plentiful — are not the norm. It’s pretty easy to find hotels and guesthouses for under $40 USD per night. And decent ones, too! Comfortable beds, Wi-Fi, a kitchen, and a washing machine can be included for that price.
I recommend checking in the Deira and Al-Barsha areas for these deals, though I’ve frequently found them in the Marina as well.
Additionally, hostels have started to crop up in Dubai. This was not a thing when I first traveled there seven years ago. With the cultural expectations demanded of men and women, this was not a sleeping arrangement that was “allowed.” Nowadays, it’s an option. (Note that in more conservative areas, like Sharjah, this will likely still not be the case).
Avoid the large and expensive restaurants and opt for tasty, authentic food stalls instead. Falafel sandwiches, fresh-squeezed juices, and aromatic Indian dishes can be had on the cheap.
6. You have a lot of transportation options.
In Dubai, there are a lot of ways for solo women to get around.
The metro system is cheap, clean, and on time, in my experience. Uber operates in Dubai, too. And it is possible to hire private drivers, though this will be the more expensive route.
Yes, women can drive and rent a car in the UAE. It will be no problem to do so. However, traffic can be intense in the city, and there are crazy drivers here, just like everywhere else!
One unique transportation option in Dubai is women-only pink taxicabs. If you are feeling particularly nervous, these would be a great way for a solo woman to travel around Dubai. Look for the telltale pink rooftops that indicate “women only.”
7. Be mindful of how you dress.
In Dubai, you will see a lot of variation in the way that women dress.
Local women typically wear a long black dress called an abaya and a head covering called a hijab. It is not uncommon to see even more conservative dress, such as a full burka, covering women’s entire body except for the eyes. (In contrast, men wear a long white kandoura.)
But you will also see tourists showing cleavage and midriffs, wearing short-shorts, and ultimately dressing like they are in laid-back Bali rather than conservative Dubai.
While you might get away with it, I would strongly caution solo women not to dress this way in Dubai. At the very least, you will be inviting a lot of unwanted attention and certainly offending local sentiments.
Instead, your Dubai packing list should include items like loose palazzo pants, flowy kimonos, and scarves (which will be needed to cover your head when entering mosques). A good rule of thumb is to cover the shoulders, elbows, knees, and head.
8. You may need to work harder to get off the grid.
When I first traveled to the UAE, my goal was to spend most of my time deep in the desert, near the Saudi border, exploring and camping in this beautiful landscape.
Spoiler alert: I did make that happen! And I have done the same thing on almost every subsequent visit.
However, it did take a lot of persistence.
Solo women will have no issues getting around Dubai. But if you are trying to get to the far corners of the country, you will probably run into some issues.
In Islamic culture, it is not common or accepted for a man to be alone with a woman that he is not related to or married to. So it took a lot of persistence for me to find a driver who would do this.
9. Be aware of local laws.
This is something travelers should do regardless of their destination, and solo female travelers in Dubai are no exception. This is especially important in the UAE, as it is governed by sharia law, which most Western travelers may not be familiar with.
The rules and laws in the UAE forbid such things as drinking alcohol, using crude language, kissing in public, taking someone’s photo without asking (particularly women), homosexuality, and a long list of other infractions.
A few legal exceptions do exist, like purchasing alcohol at larger hotels or establishments. And though Dubai is the most liberal of all seven emirates, I still recommend not testing the waters.
10. Solo women will get a unique perspective.
One benefit of being a woman in Muslim countries is that you will get a unique perspective that your male counterparts cannot.
Men are typically not be able to interact in any way with local women they are not related to. But as a woman, you will be able to approach other women, speak with them about the area, or ask them for help if you need assistance.
One of the experiences I value most in traveling is to get to know local people and customs, so this is one of my favorite benefits of solo female travel in Dubai.
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The United Arab Emirates is one of the safest countries in the world to visit, and Dubai in particular is one of the most liberal of all Middle Eastern cities.
It’s a great place to travel if you want a safe and comfortable crash course in Middle Eastern life. If you go there knowing the benefits and challenges of solo female travel in Dubai, you are more likely to have a fun and successful trip!
About the author: Monica Chapon has traveled to six continents solo and chronicles her adventures on her blog, This Rare Earth. She can usually be found exploring the deserts of the world, taking impromptu road trips, or performing as an aerialist on silks. Follow along with Monica’s adventures on Instagram.