Culture Shock

Get to know local lore so you don’t look like a big, bungling, insensitive halfwit

The Knowledge
The Knowledge
The family

The extended family is of crucial importance to Emiratis. Names tend to define someone within their immediate family – as bin (‘son of’) or bint (‘daughter of’) – and within their tribe or extended family by the prefix ‘Al’. The existence of ‘wasta’ – the ‘old boys’ network’ of favours given to those with family and friends in high places – still exists alongside new meritocracy.

The weekend

The official weekend is Friday and Saturday. Friday is the Islamic holy day. Muslims spend it with loved ones at parks, beaches or in their homes. Many shops and souks don’t open until late afternoon.


Islam is an ever present and you will soon become accustomed to the sound of the call to prayer blasting from the loudspeakers from mosques. Muslims pray five times each day facing Mecca, and you might see stickers or signs in hotel rooms specifying which direction it faces. It’s not uncommon to see people praying in office corridors or by the side of the road, while there are prayer rooms for Muslims at most shopping centres and at the airport (usually located near the bathrooms). Avoid walking in front of anyone praying, and don’t stare. As for other faiths, the UAE is pretty tolerant and allows temples and churches, though active promotion is not allowed. Israeli citizens are not allowed into the country. There are many different days each year commemorating aspects of Islam, and most will mean a public holiday.


The holy month of Ramadan is a particularly special time for Muslims, who are required to abstain from eating, drinking and smoking between sunrise and sunset – and expats are asked to refrain from the above in public or else cop a fine and possible jail sentence. During this month cafés and restaurants will close or lower their blinds during the day, some shops will also shut and reopen at sunset. Live music and dancing are also banned during the month. However, the evening festivities known as iftar can be enjoyed by locals and expats, with most hotels erecting special Ramadan tents for fast-breaking feasting and traditional celebrations.

The mosque

Non-Muslims aren’t normally allowed inside mosques, but the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (04 353 6666; organises visits to Jumeirah Mosque on Sundays and Thursdays at 10am. You’ll get a chance to walk through the interior with a small group of sightseers followed by a cultural talk, where you can ask about the mosque and Islam. You must wear modest clothing (no shorts) and women must wear a head scarf. All visitors will be asked to remove their shoes before entering the mosque.

National dress

You will find most Emiratis wear their national dress in public, though at home, most tend to wear Western clothing. Men wear the white full-length robe known as a dishdash/a, with a red head dress called a gutra. The black cord which wraps around the gutra is known as an agal, which Bedouins once used to secure camels. Women wear the black coloured robe called an abaya with a head scarf known as a sheyla, and these days it’s becoming increasingly rare to see a plain abaya. Along with designer sunglasses and bags, abayas are going through a fashion revolution; many are embroidered and embellished with beads or even Swarovski crystals. Though it’s less common, you will spot more traditional (and older) Arab women wearing a burkha – a tough, fabric mask covering their faces.


A common misconception is that women are restricted; however Emirati women are free to drive and pursue studies and hobbies. Generally, unmarried men and women tend to lead separate lives – although, for young people, mobile phones, the popularity of higher education, cinemas and malls has facilitated a low level of long-distance flirting. At public events, such as the horse races, it’s rare to see Emirati wives accompanying their husbands, at weddings, women usually hold separate celebrations to the men, and some areas of life, such as local football matches, are still off-limits to women. These traditions, which extend to ladies’ days in parks, female-only beaches, and women being served first or separately in banks or other queues, sit alongside the rise of the Emirati businesswoman and the prominent role taken by some of the Sheikhas. The glass ceiling for Arab women is making progress, with the UAE’s first female judge appointed in 2008, and similar successful businesswomen making their mark. However, tradition applies, and men should not offer their hand to shake to an Emirati woman (or any woman in an abaya). If she offers her hand to you, a shake is OK, if not, a smile and a nod is the appropriate way for you to introduce yourself.


Dubai is effectively bilingual – road signs, maps and daily newspapers are in English, and most Emiratis speak the language well. However, some public sector staff don’t have the same language skills; at some time during your stay, a public official is bound to say, ‘Yanni, give me passport’ or ‘I want form’. This brusqueness has more to do with the imprecise art of translating Arabic to English than a desire to be rude. It is also worthwhile tuning your ear to ‘Hinglish’ – a mix of Hindi or Urdu and English, or Indian English. The ethnic majority, many Abu Dhabi residents from the subcontinent also manage their own unique blend of English plus a smattering of Arabic. Meeting your hosts halfway is the least that you can do; the look of genuine delight on a local’s face when they hear you speaking their language makes it worth it. For tips, see our Arabic Essentials guide on the facing page.


In short, don’t. There’s a list of 65 pharmaceutical products the UAE Ministry of Health has classified as narcotics. It includes brands such as Co-Codamol and Paracodol – tablets readily available over the counter in chemists abroad. Customs officials say many airline passengers found carrying banned medicines claim ignorance and complain that details of what is illegal are shrouded in mystery. Customs deny this and say the full list can be obtained by contacting the Ministry of Health or pharmacies in Dubai. Virtually all cases of hard drug possession end up with the culprit being put behind bars. Trials involving marijuana and heroin are dealt with in the same way. Recent court cases suggest anyone caught dealing drugs can expect to be given a lengthy sentence.

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