How To Dress

Understanding a culture very different from our own can be almost impossible.  When you hail from a country where almost everything goes and most all types of dress are acceptable in public, it can be quite difficult to latch onto the concept that in the Arab world everything most certainly does not go, at all. 

How Do They Dress?

Middle Eastern Muslims, men as well as women, dress far more conservatively in public than do people from most other cultures.  In many Mid Eastern countries not just the women but the men cover themselves from head to toe while in public.  You will likely never see an Arab man in an Arab country in shorts, unless he is on the beach.  In this environment, where covering up for modesty’s sake is the norm, seeing us dressed in anything less than modest attire can be uncomfortable for the locals.  Dressing modestly really is necessary in the Middle East, for both men and women. 

How Should We Dress?

A good rule of thumb for both men and women is to cover our shoulders and knees and wear loose-fitting clothing.  Capris are a great choice for women, as are skirts that cover the knees.  Tops should be loose fitting but need not be long-sleeved.  If you do want to wear a tight-fitting or sleeveless shirt, throwing a large scarf over your shoulders will give you a more conservative appearance.  Long-ish shorts or long pants along with short sleeved shirts are perfect for men.  Even Middle Eastern children dress somewhat modestly, so if you travel with children long-ish and loose-fitting is a good rule of thumb for their clothes.  On tour buses and at most hotels we can dress however we wish.  It is important to remember, though, that when we step out the door we’re entering the Arab world and a culture that we need to respect, in part by dressing appropriately.

How Should We Not Dress?

Shorts, short skirts, tank tops, halter tops and tight clothing are not worn in public by the Arabs of the Mid East. As such, we should not wear these items of clothing either, out of respect to their sensitivities, in order to avoid sticking out any more than we already do, and to avoid any remarks that such inappropriate dress might provoke.

Women – Make sure that your shoulders and knees are covered. Wear loose-fitting clothing. Capris and long pants are perfectly acceptable. Covering your head is not necessary in most countries.

Men – Wear long shorts or pants and shirts with sleeves. There is no need to cover your head.

Children – It is a good idea to cover shoulders and knees of both boys and girls. Children do not need to cover their heads.

The Differences in Dress Between the Regions

The Persian Gulf countries hold tightly to their ancient cultures and are far less westernized than Mid Eastern countries of the Mediterranean, namely Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.  Wearing very modest dress is best for travelers to the Persian Gulf, while dressing a little more liberally is more acceptable in the Mediterranean Middle East.  Generally, though, in all Muslim countries you’ll likely be nearly as uncomfortable wearing immodest clothing as the locals will be seeing you wear it.  In Muslim countries which have heavy tourism and/or large Western expat populations, the locals are more accustomed to seeing people in shorts, T-shirts and other Western dress.  Still, if you’re female, especially young and/or attractive, you can expect a lot of stares if you wear the scanty clothing typical in your part of the world.  In regions where tourism is not as popular and the Western expat population not as large, the stares and possible comments you may receive from men while walking around in your usual wardrobe are likely to be very uncomfortable.

The manner in which Arabs themselves dress varies greatly from country to country.  In the extremely conservative country of Oman, for example, you’ll find almost all Arab men wear the dishdasha, or traditional long robe, usually white, along with a kumma, or cap on their head.  Muslim Omani women without exception wear the abaya, or long black robe, in public, along with a black hijab to cover their head and often a black burqa across their face.  On the other side of the coin, in the far more liberal country of Egypt you’ll often see that although many men wear long robes or other loose-fitting clothing of different colors, most wear Western clothes such as jeans and polo shirts.  Likewise, some Muslim women in Egypt wear the abaya, hijab and burqa, while many others wear jeans along with a loose, long-sleeved blouse and a colorful scarf covering their hair.

How Should I Dress at the Beach?

While many Arabs, women in particular, still adhere to their modest dress at the beach, such dress is not expected of non-locals. The beach attire you wear elsewhere in the world – swimming trunks for men and one or two-piece swimsuits for women – are perfectly acceptable.

How Should I Dress at the Gym?

Separate gyms for men and women are very common in Mideastern countries, even in hotels. Many gyms, though, even in the most conservative Muslim countries, are not segregated. It is acceptable to wear any type of workout clothes in gyms in the Middle East, although it’s best to stick to long-ish and loose fitting gym clothes in case you find yourself working out side by side with a modestly attired Arab of the opposite sex.

No matter where you travel in the Middle East, modest dress is key.