Cultural Taboos in the U.A.E.
There is a country on the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, nestled along the Arabian Gulf, vast in beauty, rich in heritage, and waiting for you. It’s an altogether different world than the one you know. Yet, this unassuming country is making a name for itself and piquing the curiosity of expatriates the world over. Lay down your preconceived notions and forget what you think you know.
Because the United Arab Emirates will surprise and delight you.
It’s tempting to take what we know of the Middle Eastern part of the world and hold some skewed opinions or even pronounce certain judgments upon them without taking time to understand or visit the object of our scrutiny. Once we can learn to be aware of their cultural traditions, religious heritage, and the foundational value of respect they hold for each person, there is much about the U.A.E. which we can cherish for a lifetime.
Grounded in Religion
The U.A.E. is far from a third-world country. It’s actually rather lavish, especially around the flourishing cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There are strict laws in place which keep crime extremely low and in many ways enhance the quality of life, but may also prove a stumbling block to the “do what we want” freedoms us Westerners cherish. I’m not saying you have to stay there forever, but just as you want to be respected in your home, let us respect the homeland of others.
- Being a Muslim country, many of the U.A.E.’s laws and customs are an overflow from their religion. An aspect of their belief system restricts alcohol and pork from their diets. You can drink if you’re non-Muslim, but only in certain licensed areas, such as bars or in the privacy of your own home.
- You are not allowed to enter a mosque or touch a Qur’an if you’re not a Muslim. A few mosques are open to visitors and proper appearance should be observed. We’ll get to that in a bit.
- The work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday with Friday and Saturday being the weekend. Fridays are a day of rest.
- Be aware of Muslim holidays, especially Ramadan, the holy month of Islam in which they celebrate the prophet’s receiving the revelations of Qur’an. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. So eating and drinking in public during the daylight hours of Ramadan are strictly forbidden, even for non-Muslims. Wait until dark to break your fast, then do it in style.
Keeping Up Appearances
Dress is important in any culture. Visitors to the U.A.E. are expected to abide by local standards of modesty, but need not deck themselves in traditional garb. In fact, it may actually offend the locals. Best to stay aware and not try to stand out.
- A good rule for dress is modesty. Keep most of the body covered. Yeah, it’s probably hot, but look around and find ways to “do as the Emirati do”.
- For men: Business wear means long pants, shirt, tie, and jacket, while avoiding much visible jewelry, especially around the neck.
- For women: Concealment is the key. Have a high neckline, sleeves at least to the elbow, and a hemline well below the knee. Nothing tight fitting and no revealing swimwear, like bikinis, outside of beach or water areas. A scarf can be a multi-purposeful accessory and keep you fitting in nicely.
Not In Public
Keep your crazy antics for the privacy of your own hotel. It’s a serious no-no to do these things in public, with some actions punishable by law, imprisonment, or death… just kidding. Deportation.
- There is a zero tolerance policy for drugs so any medication you take with you should be run through the proper Embassy before you find yourself innocently busted. The same goes for drunk driving. No tolerance whatsoever.
- Swearing, using offensive gestures, and spitting can all cause you trouble in public spaces.
- Anger, even “road rage”, is not only a sign of weak character, but can be a punishable offense depending upon the degree to which you take it. Keep Calm and Emirates On.
- Ask before taking photos of strangers, especially women, as it is deemed disrespectful otherwise. Steer clear of government and military organizations as well.
- Make sure you have money in the bank as a bounced check or unpaid bills can cause a lot of unwanted trouble, even imprisonment.
- As catchy as The Vandella’s tune is, keep the dancing off the streets and behind closed doors.
Being our best selves is always something to strive for, but all the more important when you are a foreigner in a foreign land. Do the research and listen to advice when it comes to cultural taboos.
- Men walking hand in hand is a sign and signal of friendship. Homosexuality, however, is illegal in the U.A.E.
- Quite often shoes are removed when entering a building, especially someone’s home. Follow the example of your host or guide on that one.
- Southpaws beware. Your left hand is considered unclean and is reserved for hygienic purposes, so shake, gesture, and eat with your right. Oh, and don’t point with either.
- It’s best to keep your opinions, certainly critical ones, to yourself, especially on the hot-button topics of politics, Israel, women, and religion. Discuss the cultural differences at another time.
- As in nearly any Asian culture, be aware of how you sit and do not point the bottom of your feet at anyone. It is considered very rude.
- Names can be long and a bit confusing, so practice learning the full names of those you’ll be in contact with as well as the names they prefer to be called when you address them. This simple act of respect translates well across all cultures.
The U.A.E. and women have an interesting relationship. There’s no doubt it’s a male dominated society. As such, there are some important rules to follow, especially as it pertains to men, in how you relate with women.
- It is common for men to greet by shaking other men’s hands. Women, by touching cheeks or shaking the hand of another woman. But it’s custom for men to shake a woman’s hand only if she first offers it to him. If not, take the hint and don’t make a move.
- Married people can hold hands in public, but any more is considered inappropriate. No kissing, no PDAs, no nudity, no sexual relations in public. Period. Not for married couples and not for anyone. It is neither the time nor place. So please, control your urges.
- While we’re on the subject, sex outside of marriage goes against their traditions and beliefs, even if you are visitors to the country. It’s just how it goes: you and your partner, if unmarried, will need to get separate hotel rooms.
- Practice “bouncing” your vision, because staring at or admiring women for too long is highly inappropriate. Same goes for lingering your sight on another’s possessions. They may feel obliged to give you the object of your obsession and will not only expect something in return, but will be deeply offended if you refuse a gift. Thus, covet not.
Sound intense? Don’t let the differences scare you off from an experience in learning, growing, and becoming a better human being through connecting with an often neglected part of our world. There is great value and beauty in the United Arab Emirates. And if you’re aware of some of these simple ways to show respect for those around you, there is no question you will be welcomed with open arms as you discover for yourself the many benefits the U.A.E. offers.