Culture in the United Arab Emirates
The UAE is an Arab nation and therefore has many customs that could be regarded as strange to Westerners. As an Expat you need to be aware of the nation’s social customs and be aware of what you’re expected to do and not to do.
Arabs tend to be understanding and unlikely to take offence for social blunders, provided they stem from ignorance and not malice.
Unlike in the West where everyone is free to practise whatever faith they wish or follow their own customs, in Arab nations this is not the case, freedom of expression is frowned upon. It’s important to remember that you’re a foreigner and you must therefore adapt to the customs and social behaviour of the region – not the other way round. In addition to actions and behaviour which are regarded as criminal, there are certain unwritten rules that you must observe in order not to offend the locals.
The most common greeting in the Gulf is Salam alaykum (‘Peace be upon you’), to which the correct reply is Wa alaykum as-salam (‘And upon you be peace’).
Things to remember
Although Alcohol is available to non-Muslims (accept the emirate of Sharjah where it is forbidden), it must never be drunk on the street or offered to the locals. Eating, drinking and smoking are not allowed on the street during the month of fasting called Ramadan.
You should always accept food and drink when it is offered but be sure that you must always use your right hand for drinking and eating, as the left hand is used for toilet purposes and is regarded as unclean.
After handshaking, it’s customary to enquire after the other person’s health and other matters, and you should expect similar enquiries to be directed at you. Don’t enquire after the health of the female members of an Arab’s family, however, but restrict your questions to those regarding the family in general or the sons as this could lead to deeply offending the man of the house.
Arabs frown on clothes which reveal the shoulders, arms and legs, and any woman dressing provocatively will be regarded as being of ‘easy virtue’ or perhaps even as a prostitute. In the home, however, when not entertaining close friends or relatives, Arab women often adopt western dress, particularly younger women, and there are no restrictions on the way foreign women may dress in private.
Most Arab women dress according to religious custom, which means that they must cover most of the body, from head to foot. The traditional black over garment is ankle length with long sleeves and a high neckline, and the hair is covered. Some Arab women are totally covered, including their face and hands, especially Saudis and those with strictly religious husbands. Western women must always dress conservatively and in some areas must cover their hair.