Gay life in Dubai: interview with Zayed from the UAE

Stefan Arestis

“How dare you promote travel to countries where being gay is illegal Nomadic Boys, you should be ASHAMED!”

…is the typical comment we receive on social media each time one of our posts about gay Dubai, gay Abu Dhabi or gay Iran gets shared. But before you judge, remember that whilst a country has anti-gay laws, that same country still has an LGBTQ community who you risk turning your back on, right when they need you the most.

We have always been adamant that just because a country has spurious LGBTQ laws, this should not prevent us from visiting. We instead believe that it is far more productive to get out there and be a visible and positive representation of our community to show to that society that we are not some freak perversion that needs to be persecuted. Doing this is going to do so much more for the local LGBTQ community's struggle for visibility against an oppressive government, than boycotting them is going to achieve.

But look, we get it! We also used to feel this way. After all, the United Arab Emirates is no different than its Middle Eastern neighbours when it comes to LGBTQ rights. In short, there are none. Being gay here is a crime, full stop! Officially it's punishable by imprisonment, deportation, a fine, and worse, death. Whether or not these are strictly enforced, the very existence of these laws is so insulting that it simply serves to conjure up natural feelings of intense hatred within us – “how can such a government be so loathsome of us that it wants to eradicate and kill us? How dare they?!”

Yet we disagree that boycotting them is the solution. That is what these oppressive governments want us to do: ignore and turn our backs on them so they can continue crushing any LGBTQ visibility and pretend we don't exist! Instead, from our travels in countries with anti-gay laws, we've learnt that the more productive way forward is to get out there and support gay friendly businesses in that country as much as we can and use our platform to give a voice to the local LGBTQ community.

Therefore, for this article, we are super proud that our buddy, Zayed, was happy for us to interview him about what gay life is like in Dubai and what it's like growing up gay in the UAE. Zayed has however asked that he is anonymous in this interview using ‘Zayed' as his alias.

Gay dating apps in Dubai

Gay dating apps such as Grindr or Scruff are illegal and blocked in Dubai. If you're travelling to Dubai and want to get around this you can use a VPN. This will give you full access to any gay dating apps as well as allowing you to surf the Net anonymously.

Hi Zayed, please introduce yourself:

Hi boys, I'm Zayed, 29 years old and I work as a senior media executive for a large company based in Dubai.

I am originally from the Sharjah Emirate, which is next to Dubai. My home city is also called Sharjah. It is the third-largest city in the UAE after Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

UAE map of the Emirates
Map of UAE and the 7 Emirates

Are you openly gay?

It took me a long time to realise I was gay growing up. I came out to myself quite late – I was 26. But I haven't looked back since! No one has the right to judge me for what I am. I've stopped caring what people think and say about me, which has given me more confidence to just say out loud:

“I am gay and have nothing to hide!”

I am now out to my close friends and some of my work colleagues. Oh there are a lot of “us” at work – media is a very gay industry!

However, I am not (yet) out to my family. That is a conversation I hope to tackle one day in the future, but given how conservative Emirati society is about homosexuality, this isn't going to be easy at all!

What was it like growing up gay in the UAE?

It was hard at first. The UAE is very conservative. Homophobia was pervasive across all sections of society when I was growing up. This was mainly because there was so little visibility about LGBTQ issues anywhere.

Over the past decade, however, things have changed massively! With the growth of the Internet, we see more LGBTQ issues discussed in Emirati society than ever before. Whether these are discussed in a positive light or not, the fact that these conversations are now taking place is a massive leap forward for our LGBTQ community.

In short, the mentality of Emirati citizens is slowly evolving and society is becoming more open-minded than ever before, especially compared to when I was growing up.

Gay life in Dubai and conservative Emirati society is not easy
Being gay in Emirati society is not easy!

Did you ever experience any homophobia growing up?

Unfortunately, I did. Back at high school, I was bullied a lot for being slightly effeminate and not wanting to play football with the guys. I preferred to hang out with girls, so this gave the guys at school more reason to pick on me.

Funnily enough, the guys who used to bully me at school are today gay – I've spotted quite a few of them on the dating apps and also dancing with other guys at the queer events happening in Dubai. I confronted one of them about it and we talked about it. I explained how his bullying negatively impacted me and damaged my confidence in life and he apologised. We are now friends, but it's funny that homophobic bullies consistently turn out to be latent homosexual men, eh?

Do you know anyone who has been arrested for being gay?

Growing up, I always heard of cases on the news where guys were arrested, though not so much for being gay, but because of public indecency. The worst-case scenario was a short prison sentence and fine. I certainly do not know of anyone being executed in the UAE for being gay.

Whilst I am not in any way trying to defend my country's anti-gay laws, I do want to impress that our society is slowly changing. For example, in the most recent case of a Scottish man being arrested under the public indecency laws for putting his hand on a man in a bar, the ruler of the Dubai Emirate (Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum) eventually intervened and forced these charges to be dropped.

The advice I give to my foreign gay friends visiting the UAE is: yes we have anti-gay laws, yes it sucks massively, but with basic common sense, you will be absolutely fine. It is unlikely you will be arrested for being gay unless you are caught in the act. So, don't make out with other guys in public places and keep all the hanky panky for your hotel bedroom.

Gay life in the UAE is ok if you avoid PDAs
Gay life in the UAE is hard: be careful to avoid PDAs!

Have you seen any change since your childhood?

Definitely. Society is constantly evolving for the better. People are becoming increasingly open-minded.

Emiratis are very educated people. Most of us have studied abroad in places like Canada, the US, the UK etc so we have been in contact with larger LGBTQ communities – an important “visibility” that our parents and generations before would not have had.

In addition, with the huge influx of expats, tourists and immigrants coming to the UAE from all over the world on a daily basis, this has created more diversity and tolerance in our society. As a result of this, the Emirati LGBTQ community grows more confident. There are more Emiratis guys coming out of the closet compared to before. I bet that you will find at least 2-3 openly gay men or women in every company.

I'm not saying it's safe to go out in the streets waving rainbow flags, holding hands and kissing your same-sex partner in public here. Far from it! But compared to when I was a little boy growing up, there has definitely been a positive shift in attitudes towards our LGBTQ community.

Gay guy in the UAE exploring the gay scene of Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Gay life in the UAE is…complex!

What’s the gay scene of Dubai like?

Whilst there are no official gay bars and clubs anywhere in the UAE like you'd find in Barcelona, Fort Lauderdale or Amsterdam, we do have a very active underground gay scene, particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Remember – this is home to over 20,000 cabin crew…justsayin'!!

For gay travellers to Dubai, I highly recommend using the dating apps to connect with the local LGBTQ community to find out where/when the next big party is.

In terms of gay friendly hangouts in Dubai, I recommend the bars of the large international chain hotels. Here you know the crowd is touristic and international and won't bat an eyelid at two men embracing, BUT as I said above, be on the safe side and avoid PDAs. My favourites include the Sheraton Hotel's Level 43 Sky Lounge, Bar 44 on the top floor of Grosvenor House and the Pure Sky Lounge located on the 35th floor of the Hilton. Other gay friendly bars in Dubai that I love to hang out at with my friends include the Barbary Deli & Cocktail Club and the Teatro Restaurant.

In terms of gay clubs in Dubai, look out for the parties hosted by AHS Events, Barcode Dubai and Fantasia Dubai.

In terms of hotels, the major international chains are used to dealing with LGBTQ travellers and won't bat an eyelid at two men requesting to share a bed – particularly places like The Sofitel, The Hilton and the Aloft Me'aisam. Of course, I defer to your excellent detailed guide about the best gay friendly hotels in Dubai!

Gay Dubai parties gay friendly bars and clubs
These gay boys on the loose discovering the underground gay scene of Dubai!

Do you think things will improve for the queer community of Dubai?

Absolutely! Put it this way, we as gay people are doing absolutely nothing wrong. The sooner more people start to educate themselves about this, the quicker we will see society evolving its attitudes, anti-gay laws getting repealed and positive progress happening. More and more politicians across the UAE are expressing sympathy towards our LGBTQ community. Whilst none have yet to declare their support to us publicly, I strongly believe it's only a matter of time when they will start campaigning for sexual minority rights.

Just the other day I spotted this rainbow cake in the window of the very fancy Walnut Grove Cafe in Dubai Mall:

Gay rainbow cake in Dubai Walnut Grove Cafe
The famous rainbow cake at the Walnut Grove Cafe in Dubai Mall

An example of progressive change in the UAE is that for the Expo 2020 Dubai, we will be (officially) opening our doors to Israel and to Israeli tourists for the first time in our history. This is a big deal because up until now, the UAE has had frosty relations with Israel and zero diplomatic ties. By doing this, the UAE is showing it is open to change in order to show a more progressive image to the West. I believe that very soon, we will see the UAE doing the same thing in relation to LGBTQ rights so that it can hold its head up high on the international stage.

Little Mix performing in Dubai with rainbow flag
Little Mix performing behind a giant rainbow flag in Dubai!

Are there any famous gay Emirati celebrities?

Short answer: no…not yet!

There are many Emirati gay celebrities of course, but none are out. There have however been some famous queer public moments in the UAE, which show how much we are changing and becoming one of the most gay friendly Arab countries:

  • In March 2019, when Little Mix performed in Dubai they had a giant rainbow flag appear on the screen behind them whilst they wore outfits depicting the UAE flag. This was huge in the press. They got away with it without anyone in the government complaining about it (see photo above).
  • In May/June 2015, we had Ru Paul's Drag Race stars visit Dubai and allowed to perform here, publicly, in full drag – in particular, Alyssa Edwards and Shangela. This is significant because cross-dressing is illegal in the UAE. But despite this, the queens were given special permission by the Emirati government to perform in drag. Back in 2013 by way of example, when Willam, Detox and Vicky Vox performed in Dubai, they were not allowed to perform in drag!
  • In August 2017, Emirati filmmaker, Abdulla Al Kaabi pushed boundaries and managed to bypass our strict movie state censors by having his film “Only Men Go To The Grave” screened all across Dubai – a movie exploring themes of gender identity and homosexuality in Arab society!

Where would you take a romantic in Dubai?

I would start with the Jumeirah Palace Hotel for coffee, tea and shisha. It's gorgeous here, super opulent, luxurious, chilled and gay friendly. If during October-December, I would then go to the Dubai Design District event. It's one of my favourite fairs, featuring some of the best fashion, design and lifestyle events in Dubai.

I also recommend taking a date for a stroll around the Palm Jumeirah. This is an artificial archipelago in Dubai created by land reclamation. It's now one of the largest artificial islands in the world! It's also very distinctive, shaped like a giant palm tree within a circle. You can spot it from the plane as you land into Dubai Airport or from the Burj Khalifa (another must-see in Dubai of course as this is the tallest building in the world!).

What’s your advice to LGBTQ travellers visiting Dubai and the UAE?

It's quite hard to speak to a random guy on the streets telling him you like him! For this reason, I highly recommend using gay dating apps like Grindr and Hornet to connect with LGBTQ locals.

This is also the best way to tap into the underground gay scene to find out where and when the next queer event is taking place as these are usually only announced and publicised by word of mouth and social media. However, bear in mind that the internet in the UAE is heavily monitored and most gay sites/apps are banned. For this reason, I strongly recommend investing in a good VPN so you can access these apps safely and anonymously!

I also recommend using Tinder. Unlike Grindr and Hornet, it generally works ok in the UAE without a VPN.

Gay couple in Dubai exploring Palm Jumeirah
Exploring the sites and smells of Palm Jumeirah in Dubai

What to do in Dubai?

There are so many incredible things to do and see in Dubai that you may have to make some difficult choices depending on how much time you have!


For more inspiration:

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Learn about life as a gay man in the United Arab Emirates in our interview with Zayed who lives in Dubai
Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor and author the gay travel blog nomadicboys.com. As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about travelling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gay Times, Gaycities, Pink News, Gay Star News, Attitude and Towleroad. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practised as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

4 thoughts on “Gay life in Dubai: interview with Zayed from the UAE”

  1. Thank you for posting this! I see way too many travelers doing the opposite – especially treating the world like it is their plaything.

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