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Living in the UAE
Wasta, Modesty, and Other Cultural Values & Social Customs in the UAE
Based on Islamic values, the local customs and etiquette in the UAE may at first seem strange to some. However, a modest and respectful behavior as well as following some simple rules will already go a long way in making sure you don’t step on any toes while living in the UAE.
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At a glance:
- Islamic values strongly influence daily life in the UAE, even for non-Muslims: from greetings and hospitality, to eating etiquette and more.
- Expats need to be particularly aware of rules concerning dress code, alcohol, and relations between the men and women.
- Wasta, the Arabian concept of networking and trading favors, also plays an important role in Emirati culture and can often smoothen the way.
One just needs to take a look at the impressive skyscrapers, huge shopping malls, and available leisure activities to recognize that the UAE in general and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular are very modern. However, this does not mean that tradition and religion have lost any of their influence. Quite the contrary, old and new have managed to blend and create a unique and fascinating atmosphere in the UAE. So make sure you don’t forget to follow the local customs and social etiquette when being dazzled by the desert sun reflecting off Burj Khalifa!
As-Salam Alaikum — Greetings in the UAE
When greeting guests, business partners, etc. make sure to stand up, especially when greeting elder persons or those with a higher rank. The latter two should also be addressed first. Take your cue from Muslims whether or not to shake hands, though, as not all do due to religious reasons. This is particularly the case for handshakes between the opposite sexes! When a handshake does occur, the contact typically lasts quite a while and, among Arabs, is often followed by touching noses three times or a kiss to the cheek. In general, personal space is often smaller than in many other countries, particularly during a greeting, so don’t be surprised when your conversational partner steps a bit closer.
When making small talk, it is okay to enquire about an Emirati’s family in general, but make sure not to show any undue interest in female relatives. Similarly, men should not make any prolonged eye contact with Muslim women, as this is considered quite improper.
The traditional phrase for greeting in the UAE is As-salam alaikum ( “Peace be upon you”), with Wa alaikum as-salam ( “and upon you be peace”) the customary reply. During Ramadan, you may also hear Ramadan Kareem (“Happy/Blessed Ramadan”) as a form of greeting.
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Keep Your Feet on the Ground
When living in the UAE, and particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you will encounter people from various cultures and backgrounds, so keep this in mind when interacting with others. What is more, religion plays an important role in everyday life and you’d do well to keep Islamic values in mind when out and about in the UAE. In general, respectful, courteous, and modest behavior will already go a long way towards ensuring you are not stepping on anyone’s toes. However, make sure to also keep the following in mind.
As comfortable as it might sometimes be when sitting down, don’t cross your legs — showing the sole of your foot as well as pointing at or even touching somebody with your foot is considered insulting in the UAE. If you are gesturing with your hand, make sure not to start pointing fingers and use your whole hand instead in order to be polite. Also, don’t forget that the left hand is considered unclean and should not be used for offering food, to name but one example.
Avoid any and all swearing, offensive language, insults, and offensive or aggressive behavior (also when driving!), as these offences are not taken lightly in the UAE and punishments go from fines to deportation. Also — and this might just sound like a common courtesy — always ask permission when taking photos with people in them. Similarly, don’t take pictures of governmental buildings, palaces, military installations, airports, ports, bridges, in mosques, etc. without prior permission.
Strictly speaking, you are not allowed to share private space, e.g. a flat, hotel room, or even a car, together with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or otherwise closely related. While this rule is not necessarily rigorously enforced for non-Muslims — e.g. some hotels allowing shared rooms for non-married couples — it is important that you are aware of the potential for offense. Avoid any displays of affection in public, from kissing to holding hands — the latter is tolerated among married couples, and surprisingly common between men, though.
Modesty Is Key, so Don’t Dress to Impress
When packing your bags for your stay in the Emirates, you would be best served to leave the following behind:
- short skirts or shorts
- transparent, revealing, or (very) form-fitting clothing
- clothes with offensive and/or obscene motifs or texts
Instead, make sure you keep your wardrobe modest — at least the tops of your legs and arms should be covered and swimwear only belongs at the pool or beach. In the desert heat, clothing that is long, light, and airy is preferable, anyway.
Note that modest clothing is particularly important during the month of Ramadan or when visiting a mosque — here, women will also be asked to cover their heads and wear an abaya.
“A Plate for One Is Enough for Two” — Eating & Drinking Etiquette
The local eating and drinking habits are also heavily influenced by Islam and hospitality is considered a core value in the UAE. Even disregarding specific dietary restrictions and the Ramadan fasting, there are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind.
It is, for example, only polite to offer to share food when in the company of others — declining such an offer, by the way, is perfectly acceptable. Criticizing food, on the other hand, is considered very impolite — even if you are really not a fan of e.g. falafels.
When accepting or partaking in food or drink in the UAE, make sure you do so with your right hand — as previously mentioned, the left is considered unclean in Islam. For this reason, you might also encounter an “unusual” cutlery setting, with the fork on the right and the knife on the left. In some traditional restaurants, cutlery may be forgone completely and you eat with your hand instead, although this is not as common in public as it used to be.
When eating in the company of Muslims, it is only polite to keep their dietary restrictions in mind and avoid food that is not halal (such as pork) as well as alcohol. The latter may only be consumed in designated areas (e.g. a licensed hotel bar) or in the privacy of your own home and is, strictly speaking, only permissible when in the possession of a drinking license. In the emirate of Sharjah, you won’t find any alcohol at all.
In the other emirates, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 21 or 18 in case of Abu Dhabi. You may purchase alcohol in order to drink it later at special liquor stores, but only if you are in possession of an alcohol purchasing license, which is just handed out to non-Muslims. Make sure to use an opaque bag when carrying your purchase home and be aware that being even just slightly drunk in public is a punishable offense.
Wasta: Networking the Arabian Way
“It’s not what you know, but who you know” is not an unheard of concept in most societies, from Chinese guanxi to Arabian wasta. Roughly translating to “clout” or “connections”, wasta in the UAE denotes authority, power, and influence. So if you’ve got wasta or know someone with a high level of wasta, this may well make your life in the UAE easier, smooth business transactions, help with the job search, speed up bureaucratic procedures, etc.
Traditionally, the concept is rooted in obligations to the family/tribe and managing the relations to others via wasta, e.g. intermediaries settling a dispute between clans. In modern times, this has translated more into networking and trading favors or the promise of future favors. Your existing network of contacts as well as your social standing, profession, nationality, etc. all play a role in your “level of wasta”.