Although Emirati citizens account for a little more than 10% of the 8 million people living in the Gulf state, most residents are made up of Asian, African and Middle Eastern guest workers, as well as Western expatriates living in the country short-term.
The overall population more than doubled over the past decade as the country embarked on a building boom that transformed Dubai, up the coast from Abu Dhabi, into the Arabian Gulf's financial hub and a popular tourist draw.
As the number of foreigners in the UAE has increased, so have the accounts of them violating the UAE's strict indecency code, which limits drinking to bars and nightclubs and bans public displays of affection. A drunken couple was caught having sex on the beach and another allegedly having sex in a taxi. A Pakistani was deported for flipping the middle finger at a motorist, and the courts are filled with cases of foreigners having sex out of wedlock.
Unfortunately, sprawling shopping malls are one of the few places where Emiratis and foreigners come together in their collective effort to escape the intense temperature outside. The cultural clash is hard to ignore, as families of conservatively dressed Emiratis shop and relax in cafes alongside foreign women wearing tank tops, shorts and even transparent gowns over bikinis.
Most malls have policies in place that require "conservative" dress and encourage shoppers to avoid showing shoulders and knees, but few publicize them or enforce them.
The complaints and advocacy of many Emiratis recently caught the attention of the Federal National Council, which pledged last month to push for stronger measures to enforce the dress codes. That came after the country's culture minister, Abdulrahman al-Owais, supported efforts to emphasize the conservative traditions of the UAE.
Members of a half-elected, half-appointed council have suggested a law could include warnings and fines but not jail time for offenders. But the FNC has no law-making authority, so any decision now rests with the UAE government.
COMMENT: The Abu Dhabi police last week issued a booklet on do's and don't's for foreigners that will be available at the Abu Dhabi International Airport and hotels. It advises tourists that public displays of affection, including kissing are considered indecent and that they should wear "modest" clothing.
Yet, many foreigners, some in skimpy summer dresses, others in shorts and T-shirts, defended their right to wear what they want, either because it is fashionable or keeps them cool in the summer heat.
Given increasing Emirati pressure to enforce social mores to dress more conservatively, foreign women need not wear abayas, but should, out of respect for the local culture, avoid dress that is particularly provocative. Otherwise, one day foreigners may learn that abayas ARE required.