When one mentions the Emirates, one immediately thinks of men in turbans who obligate their women to wear the burka! This is very cliché.
For a start, turbans originate from Asia. They were originally worn by the Perse (Iranians) and spread to the Ottomans (Turks) and is still worn in certain regions of India & Pakistan. However, the Arabs never wore them! Similarly, the burka is of Afghan origin and the Arabs have never worn them.
So how do the Emiratis dress?
The Emirati attire is typical of Arabic countries and is inherited from the Bedouin culture which prevailed in the Arabic peninsula. Today, men and women carry forward these ancestral traditions not least by means of their way of dressing.
Both men and women wear “veils” and long sleeved “robes”. This is immediately understandable to anyone who has spent time in the Arabic peninsula especially in the summer! The more protection you have from the sun, the better. The traditional attire is therefore best adapted for the local conditions except for the black abaya which must capture a certain amount of heat due to its color.
For more information on how to dress in the UAE as an expat, please refer to the article on “Behavior to adopt in the UAE”
The abaya is traditionally completely black but today, you might see some with colorful embroideries around the collar or on the sleeves. Furthermore, these days, the younger generations of Emiratis like to wear fitted abayas when these were originally designed to hide or prevent from revealing any physical shape.
All women are all dressed in black which is obviously not the best choice of color considering the extreme temperatures experienced in this part of the world in the summer. This also explains the extravagant air conditioning in public areas.
On the other hand, they are dressed in an extremely fashionable manner below the abaya which they remove when solely in the presence of women or when at home. Similarly, their love for fashion is reflected by the fact that Emirati women buy abaya made by some of the greatest couturiers such as Dior, Pierre Cardin, Channel etc….
The UAE traditional Keffiyeh is white and is held in place by the agal (for which the pluriel is aghals) which resembles a sort of black heavy duty hosepipe. The keffiyehs worn in the neighbouring countries are not necessarily white and each Bedouin tribe will have its own colours. The younger emiraties prefer to wear red and white keffiyehs like the one worn by the Yasser Arafat and tie it round their head to avoid having to wear the agal. Just like with the women’s abaya, the dishdash and keffiyehs are often made foreign famous French English or Italian couturiers.
To wear the Keffiyeh the Emirati style, all you have to do is fold the headscarf once to make a triangle placing the longer side of the triangle along the forehead leaving the 90˚ corner somewhere towards the top of your back. Then all you have to do is place the aghals on top leaving the black chords dangling in your back.
If you want to wear your keffiyeh without using the aghals, simply make a triangle as described above and use the two small-angled corners to wrap them round your head, starting with the back of the head, and around the forehead to fold it back into the beginning of the loop just behind the ears. Do not use the aghals when wearing the keffiyehs in this style.
All Emiratis aged from 5 or 6 onwards wear this traditional clothing.
They usually wear them under their abaya or dishdash. When they go out to bars, clubs or parties, even in the Emirates, they wear jeans and tight fitted T-shirst, men like women. Few locals do so (as night clubs are considered synonymous with alcohol) but it is becoming more and more frequent especially in Dubai.
When they travel abroad, men and women immediately adopt European clothing fashion to prevent from being stared at. And since all locals are relatively well-off, they like to wear designer clothing.
Is it a religious or cultural wear?
This question has little meaning in the Emirates since religion and culture are merged in society. Society is based on religion and their culture is religious and all the Emiratis are Muslims. Nothing in Islam obligates men or women to wear the traditional clothing however it is a sign of belonging to the Arabic culture and to the Muslim religion.
For information on how to dress in the Emirates as an Expat please refer to the article: How to behave in the UAE.