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Deciding what to wear in the Arabian Gulf can seem tricky, but we’ve got the scoop on clothing and other essentials. An expat shares her best tips on what to pack for the Arabian Gulf!
What to Pack for The Arabian Gulf
Written By: Marie Hickman
When thinking of a holiday in the Arabian Gulf, glitzy Dubai usually springs to mind. Arab women are some of the most glamorous dressers on the planet, but the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region is a conservative place that tolerates public western dress to different degrees.
The GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia is the most restrictive of all; Dubai in the UAE is the most tolerant. Still, when you’re not in a western-style hotel, club, or private setting, always opt for loose and flowing clothing.
Read our tips on how to dress for conservative countries!
Be flexible. Depending on where you go and what you’ve planned, you might find yourself in an elegant, strappy dress at a private party or sporting a long-and-loose look in a shopping mall. You might be allowed to hit a private beach in a bikini, but be ready to cover up.
There’s no need to pack every tone on the scale; just focus on a few essentials and save room to bring home some beautiful treasures unique to the region.
A flowing midi dress will take you from day to night with modesty and panache. Middle Eastern women love glamour, heels, and bling. You’ll fit right in, unless you’re hoofing it in the desert.
Want to pack something dressy? Here are the best options for cute and comfy heels!
A chic, long-sleeved swimsuit coverup can be worn in the shade at a resort or paired with yoga pants for public beaches. A day at the camel races, marathon shopping, or beachfront strolls call for comfort plus style. A sandal-sneaker hybrid works perfectly.
A lightweight shawl will ward off chilly A/C, desert breezes, and disapproving stares in conservative areas. Do leave room in your suitcase for the many beautiful wraps you’ll find locally.
Here are some tips on how to stay cool in the heat when you need to cover up!
What to Pack for the Arabian Gulf: A Few Essentials
Sunglasses – They’re essential, as the sun can be blinding. Most locals wear them big, bold, and designer.
Find out the benefits of polarized sunglasses and our favorite styles!
Wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen – A good sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat are needed in a region where the sun shines full and strong almost 365 days a year. You can buy SPF in any pharmacy–there are some good European brands–but you won’t see too many hats.
Tampons – These can be hard to find in some areas, and store shelves are wiped clean as soon as the word gets out. Be wise and BYO. Alternatively, bring a menstrual cup.
Tissues – Toilet paper is a Western custom. Most public places feature a kitchen sink sprayer for self-cleansing but they may or may not have TP. You may want to carry a small pack of tissues.
Antibacterial wipes – GCC countries have an exciting mix of local and expatriate cultures with hygiene standards that might differ from what you’re used to. Keep wet wipes handy.
There are lots of handy travel wipes to keep your hands, face, and even teeth feeling fresh!
Extra underwear and bras – If you go in the summer, expect to sweat. A lot. Some areas get a bit humid, while others are like Death Valley. The good news is that unless it’s dusty outside, your hand-washables will dry in a flash on the balcony.
Not sure what styles or fabrics to pack? Find out the best travel underwear!
What to Pack for the Arabian Gulf: Everyday Sightseeing
Layering is a must year-round. Summertime temperatures exceed 130°F in the summer and low 90s at night, but air conditioning can be chilly.
Then there’s the modesty issue. In the winter, the mercury can dip into the low 40°s F, so wear that heavy jacket on the plane.
What you wear is determined by district. When you’re going out for a typical tourist day at the souqs, camel races, or museums, think casual but refined. There’s a strong European influence, so style is kicked up a notch.
See our favorite layering clothes for travel here!
Tunics, oxford shirts, and three-quarter length tops are a perfect go-to look. Pair them with looser pants, below-the-knee skirts, or maxis. Add a pretty neck scarf if you wish.
In westernized and resort areas, you can get away with knee-length skirts and short sleeves, but do keep a shawl or cardigan at the ready.
What to Pack for the Arabian Gulf: Big Nights Out
In the Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain, you’ll find a range of clubs, pubs, and hotel bars. This is one time you can feel free to dress as sexy as you please: cleavage, minis, backless dresses. Just be aware you’ll get some (appreciative) stares from local men.
Kuwait is a dry country and has no bars. The only place to let your inner fashionista loose is at a private party.
In all of these countries, you’re expected to cover shoulders, cleavage, and upper thighs while in public. You don’t need a headscarf or an abaya unless that’s your religious custom, you’re touring a national mosque, or you’re in Saudi Arabia. However, they do come in handy for an impromptu trip to a baqala, or convenience store.
See recommendations for great options for versatile travel dresses!
Leave This at Home
Along with knowing what to pack for the Arabian Gulf, you should also know what not to pack. Don’t plan on wearing a thong bikini unless you’re at someone’s high-walled, private villa; in fact, you might have to wear a tunic and yoga pants at public beaches and water parks.
Shorts on a woman are not customary outside of a few Dubai beaches. If you bring shorts, make sure they are knee-length.
Leave Room in Your Suitcase
You can’t leave this exotic location without buying something special. Skip the high-end malls; they’re exactly like every other mall everywhere else, and often carry higher price tags.
Scout out consignment stores if you need a luxury fix–the designer discards from an oil-rich household can be pretty amazing! But for a real deal, head to the traditional marketplaces.
Borrowing from a range of regional cultures, the goods found in the GCC are unique and usually quite affordable. Be cautioned: you’ll find a lot of unabashed fakes; their sale is barely regulated in this region.
- Headscarves are ubiquitous here, and can be worn any number of ways back home. Ditto for shawls. They range from shahtoosh (illegal for import to the US because they’re made from an endangered animal) to inexpensive but smartly embroidered nylon.
- Caftans, depending on the quality, are worn as everyday housedresses under the abaya covering. Buy the less expensive ones as loungewear or pick up a designer version as a chic hostess gown.
- Prayer beads. You’ll see men dangling, swinging, and fidgeting with them everywhere. These beads make lovely accent pieces for your home or car mirror, or doubled into a bracelet. Look for semiprecious stone versions. They’re stunning and highly collectible.
- Evil eyes are those blue-eye luck charms becoming trendy in the West. In the Mediterranean and Arabic regions, they go back millennia. Sure, you can buy these back home, but there’s something special about finding one in its provenance.
- Tunic tops known as shalwar kameez are another staple, abundant in areas catering to South Asian workers. Go for uniquely embroidered ones.
- Oudh is a scent you will smell everywhere in the Arabian Peninsula. This precious oil derived from the attar tree is used for perfume and incense. Expect to shell out serious money for a bottle of the real thing, or find a decent imitation in a little perfume shop.
- Spices are very cheap here. Look for specialty sumac, za’atar, and poultry rubs to spice up your cooking back home.
- Gold is another top pick–and it’s not what you’re used to unless you’re familiar with Indian designs. The minimum is 18 karat, and you’ll find it painstakingly shaped into sleek Italianate designs or intricately hammered into dowry sets. It may not be a bargain, but the designs are one-of-a-kind.
What to Pack for the Arabian Gulf: A Few Final Tips
When deciding what to pack for the Arabian Gulf, choose items that help you blend in with the locals. The less you stand out in public, the more you’ll be able to relax and enjoy. Get ready to feast your eyes on some amazing sights in a region that mixes the ancient world and modern flash!
Do you have any tips to add for what to pack for the Arabian Gulf? Please share below!
For more Middle East packing tips, please read:
- What to Wear in Dubai
- What to Wear in Egypt
- What to Wear in Jordan: Petra and the Dead Sea
- What to Wear for Red Sea Holidays in Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt
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Author Bio: Marie Hickman is a former TV reporter who writes about travel, lifestyle, and online shopping for valpak.com and other websites. She lived in Kuwait for six years and has traveled extensively in the GCC. She knows how to haggle at the souqs and wrap a headscarf blindfolded. When she’s not exploring new places, she and her family live in Palm Harbor, Florida.