Let's face it, if you're in the Middle East and want nightlife, you come to Dubai. The many nationalities living in and visiting this relatively liberal emirate ensure a diversity that gives the place a unique richness. While the performing arts remain underdeveloped, the bar and clubbing scene puts Dubai on par with other leading resort cities.
The action here revolves around hotels, since with only a few exceptions these are the places that have liquor licenses to serve drinks in restaurants, bars, and clubs. Whereas you're not allowed to drink in many Arab countries, and even in some parts of the U.A.E. such as neighboring Sharjah, non-Muslims are free to drink in Dubai. An evening at a shisha cafe, most of which are unlicensed and do not serve alcohol, is the more traditional nighttime activity for Emiratis.
The expanding after-dark scene includes beach bars, pubs, wine bars, cocktail lounges, and nightclubs. The venues cater to crowds from both East and West. Thursday is the biggest night (the weekend here is Fri-Sat), but there's something going on every evening of the week.
Special promotions often target women, and Tuesdays and Sundays are ladies' nights at many establishments. Bars usually close at 1am or 2am, while clubs are empty before 11pm and stay open until 3am. Door policies and cover charges vary. The drinking age is 21, but some clubs require patrons be at least 25 to enter. Most don't allow beach attire, and many bouncers selectively allow entrance based on appearance. Among the clubs that say "members only," exceptions are often made for groups that include women. Be cautious about showing overt signs of affection in bars and clubs, since doing so runs counter to Emirati values and can land you in legal trouble.
Among the liveliest areas with multiple restaurants, bars, and clubs housed in one location are Madinat Jumeirah, the Pyramids at Wafi City, the Boulevard at Emirates Towers, and Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa. The newest hot spot is The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). The largest hotels and resorts offer multiple entertainment options, as well. Choosing one of these entertainment complexes allows you to visit multiple establishments in a one-stop night on the town. It also minimizes your need to deal with traffic and find parking, which can be difficult on weekend nights.
The best time for live music is during the Dubai International Jazz Festival, which takes place in Dubai Media City for approximately 2 weeks in February. And it's not just traditional jazz - acid jazz, funk jazz, oriental jazz, and all kinds of other styles are part of the lineup, which has been expanding since the jazz fest first started happening in 2003. Visit www.dubaijazzfest.com for information.
Live music is not permitted during Ramadan, when nightclubs remain closed. Still, there's plenty to do at night during this holy month. Restaurants are full starting at sundown, and Ramadan tents stay open until 2 or 3am with people talking, sipping non-alcoholic drinks, and smoking shisha. Some hotel bars do serve alcohol during this period, but only after dark. These bars are typically much quieter than during the rest of the year.
Dubai Drinking Laws -- Dubai's drinking age is 21, and bars and nightclubs regularly check IDs (a passport is best). There's zero tolerance for drinking and driving or disorderly behavior in Dubai, and drivers caught behind the wheel with even a trace of alcohol are sent to jail. If you're going to drink, it's best to do so at establishments in your hotel. If you go elsewhere, take a taxi or go with a designated driver.
Playing Safe -- Women are best not dressing provocatively and going alone to clubs, where in some places they might receive unwanted attention. Call girls work in some Dubai nightclubs, and although prostitution is technically illegal, it's a booming industry in some parts of the city - particularly at bars in lower-end hotels in Deira and Bur Dubai. I've avoided including any clubs here where this is common.
Ladies' Nights -- Tuesday is ladies' night in most of Dubai, with many bars and clubs advertising the tradition with free entry for ladies, discounted or gratis drinks, and occasionally special events. In practice, ladies enjoy free entry and often free drinks every night of the week. Still, a few bars are specially known for their Tuesday ladies' nights, including Scarlett's, The Agency, Boudoir, and Seville's. The idea of course is to get more men and their wallets into the door.
World-class movie theaters have sprung up in most of Dubai's major malls, such as the 22-screen cinema in Dubai Mall (which has four "platinum movie suites" as well as Dubai's first art cinema, "the Picturehouse"), the 14-screen cinema in Mall of the Emirates (which has two "gold class" theaters staffed with waiter service), and the 21-screen cinema at Ibn Battuta Mall (which has an IMAX theater). Major Hollywood films are shown in English with Arabic subtitles, and are censored. Bollywood films, adored by Dubai's resident Indian population, are shown at Lamcy Plaza and some other theaters around town. Movie information is available in each of the major daily newspapers. The Dubai International Film Festival, which began in 2004, takes place for a week each December and offers a selection of full features, short films, and documentaries from around the globe, including Arabic cinema. For more information, visit www.dubaifilmfest.com.
The Performing Arts
In the midst of such unbelievable growth, it's surprising that Dubai has moved at a snail's pace to establish a performing arts scene. The opening of the Palladium (www.thepalladiumdubai.com), Dubai's major performance venue in Media City, has helped bring more big-name music and entertainment events to the city. There are finally a couple of theaters in town, but performances remain sporadic and rely mainly on touring companies from abroad. Each spring, Cirque du Soleil takes place at the Ibn Battuta Mall.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.