Customs and Traditions in Emirates (UAE)

The UAE is a country rich in heritage and culture.

 

 Emirati clothing is an important part of the history and heritage of the UAE and is a source of pride. Men in the UAE wear a white cloak ‘kandura’ which is also called a ‘dishdash’ or a ‘thawb’ in other GCC countries. It is also similar to the desert clothes used in North Africa. The women in UAE wear a long flowing black gown known as the ‘abaya.’ The abaya is actually an elegant piece of attire used to cover the female’s clothing. It can range from plain, practical discreet designs similar to the ones worn in the past to more modern, elaborate and colorful ones with intricate designs.

Greetings 

Man greeting Man – A light handshake and sometimes a kiss on the nose or both cheeks is common.  Placing your right hand on your heart or chest after shaking hands is a show of great respect to the person you are greeting.  Handshakes may linger a bit.  A more traditional greeting between men involves grasping each other’s right hand, placing the left hand on the other’s right shoulder and exchanging kisses on each cheek
Woman greeting Woman – Friends and family usually kiss on the left cheek three times or at least touch their left cheek to the other woman’s right cheek three times.
Man greeting Woman –There is little to no touching between men and women during greetings in public.  Women may extend a sleeve-covered wrist or hand to be shaken.  Always wait for the woman to initiate, if at all.

 

Communication Style

  • Emiratis tend to favor an indirect style of communication over a direct style.  Avoiding confrontation and saving face is paramount.

  • Emiratis tend to favor an indirect style of communication over a direct style.  Avoiding confrontation and saving face is paramount.

 

Personal Space and Touching

  • Personal space is very important especially for members of the opposite sex.  A little more than arm’s length is the norm.   This  space may be less between friends and family members of the same sex. 

  • Touching members of the opposite sex during conversation is an absolute no-no and definitely offensive. 

  • There is a fair amount of touching between men.  It is common to see men holding hands as it is a sign of close friendship.

 

Eye Contact

  • Emiratis tend to favor direct eye contact in conversations.

  • While staring is not considered rude or an invasion if privacy, it is best for foreign men to avoid staring directly into the eyes of an Emirati woman.

  • While talking to an elder,there usually is not much direct eye contact as a sign of respect.

 

Views Of Time

  • Punctuality does not tend to be taken seriously. While the usual expectations of being on time for a meeting are present, it is normal for people to be late at meetings, social gatherings, etc.

  • People expect things to run slow and for people to be late. Deadlines are very hard to stick to. Also because traffic is quite an issue here, it is normal to use it as an excuse for being late.

  • The public transport buses are almost never on time and you may have to wait for an extra hour for a bus.

 

Gender Issues

  • Local women are usually submissive to the leading male be it the father, brother, husband etc. They are expected to respect and obey the wishes of these men.

  • However, gender roles are changing, more Arab women are working independently, are more confident and are ambitious and more hard working.

  • Most Arab women are expected to wear a burkha or hijab and cover their heads with a scarf or shaila. However, there are no set rules for foreign women and they are usually under no obligation for the same.

 

Gestures

  • Always give, pass, and receive objects (including food) with your right hand as the left is viewed as unclean.

  • Avoid pointing with your finger, use the whole hand. 

  • Always cross your legs at the ankle, not at the knee. 

    • People beckon one another by extending an arm and making a scratching motion with their fingers (fingers pointed to the floor).

Taboos 

  • Don’t point the toe or heel or any part of the foot at any person. 

  • Don’t show the sole of your foot or use the foot to move anything as it is viewed as the lowliest body part.

Law & Orders

  • The legal drinking age in the UAE, where alcohol is allowed and available is 21. It is taken quite seriously and therefore you usually cannot enter a club without ID with your age.

  • You are also only allowed to serve and consume alcohol in bars. Or have an alcohol license to buy alcohol outdoors. This is due to the religious and cultural restrictions of the religion Islam.

  • The smoking age is 18 though it is taken less seriously than drinking.

  • Penalties for possession of drugs is quite severe and may include huge fines, jail time and deportation for expatriates.

  • Other laws like crossing a red light and drinking and driving have very serious consequences.  

  • If you’re in the country during the holy month of Ramadan which is usually 30 days, you are not allowed to play music or eat outdoors and could be fined and even jailed for doing so.

 

 

The Family:

  • The family is Key to UAE society and is based upon the long-held values of Emirati tribal kinship.

  • Children are highly prized and families are close-knit, preferring to reside in the same neighborhood.

  • In February 2010, the Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid introduced the ‘UAE National Charter 2021’ which aims to strengthen family relationships and preserve the traditional principles of marriage. 

  • The introduction to the charter states that “We aim to be among the best countries in the world and this can only be achieved by strengthening families, which form the nucleus of society.” The Charter emphasizes the importance of communication between family generations and respect for elders. As part of the campaign, a ‘Family Pledge’ was set up asking Emiratis to sign an online form honoring family traditions.

  • Large families are encouraged and it is not uncommon for couples to have six children or more.

  • Traditionally, marriages are arranged by parents and it is frowned upon for an Emirati to marry outside his or her tribal kinship group.

  • Divorce is in the UAE is becoming more common and is subject to Sharia Law with complex issues around the custody of children. Joint custody is not recognized in the UAE.

Social Stratification:

  • Social class is clearly defined in the UAE. The first distinction is the divide between Emirati Nationals and the immigrant population who are known as ‘incomers’.

  • The ruling Sheikh families hold the highest positions in society both politically and socially. They have enormous wealth and power.

  • The merchant classes are the next layer of the social strata. Historically the merchants worked within the, (now obsolete), pearling industry. They now have considerable dealings within international commerce.

  • Next is the new strand of middle-class professionals have attained higher levels of education in the burgeoning economy following the formation of the Federation of Emirati States.

  • At the base of the class system are those groups within the lower income bracket, namely: former pearl divers, farmers, and Bedouin settlers.

  • There is a social class system among the immigrant groups which begins with the top layer of executives, technocrats, and international contractors. The next group are teachers, technicians, sales personnel and nursing staff. At the lowest end of the scale are the low-paid semi-skilled and unskilled service workers who are largely from Asia.  

 

Gender Roles:

  • Although traditionally, Emirati culture has been based upon a patriarchal society, the UAE endorses gender equality, guaranteeing equal rights for both sexes. Women are awarded the same legal status, access to education and employment, claim to titles and the right to inherit property. According to the World Economic Forum 2016, the UAE are a leading country in the region for equality.

  • Women now play a far greater role across the workforce. This includes previously male-dominated establishments such as the military, business and government.

  • Until recently, all education establishments were strictly segregated but co-education is gradually being introduced. More than 70% of women are opting for further education and many choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

  • Despite the visible endorsement of equality of the sexes on the part of the government, however, there remains some disparity. Married women cannot take paid employment without her husband’s consent and is required by law to obey her husband. As yet, although considerable pressure has been applied by various women’s organizations, there is still no coherent law regarding domestic violence against women.

 

Socialization:

  • Children are highly prized and nurtured in the UAE.

  • They are raised to be respectful and obedient to their elders and tend to grow up in a large extended family community.

  • The education system in the UAE is comparatively young as it was not until the inception of the Federation that it became compulsory.

  • Primary School begins at the age of six and the leaving age has recently been raised to eighteen years. Nursery facilities are widely available.   
     

Food:

  • Cuisine in the UAE emanates from a rich history of changing civilizations. Since much of the Emirates lies on the coast of the Persian Gulf, fish and seafood is very much a mainstay of the UAE diet.

  • Muslims do not eat pork but all most other meats are used in the cuisine with a preference for lamb, goat and chicken.

  • A national specialty is stuffed camel which is an ancient Bedouin recipe modified over the years. It involves stuffing the interior of the animal with sheep, goats and chickens then, traditionally, cooked slowly over a pit of burning charcoal for up to 24 hours.

  • One of the most frequently eaten foods is Sharwarma which is spit-roasted meat or mixed meats served with a variety of ingredients such as tabbouleh, tahini, hummus, pickles, cucumber or tomato. It can be served on a plate or in a Taboon bread (flatbread).

  • The cuisine is augmented with various spices and ingredients including cloves, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg or almonds, pine nuts, dates and sultanas. Kabsa is a popular recipe that involves a number of rice dishes with meats and vegetables containing various spices and ingredients.

  • Harees is a beloved dish which is often served during Ramadan and the Eid festivals. The recipe involves cracked wheat and meat which is slowly cooked and has the consistency of porridge.

  • Maqluba is another favorite dish which incorporates meat, rice and vegetables which is cooked in one pot and turned over after cooking so that the bottom layer now appears at the top. It is served with a simple salad and yogurt or another sauce such as Tahini.

SOCIAL CUSTOMS & PROTOCOL

  • Naming conventions:

  • The first name is the personal name followed by ibn which means son of and the name of the father, then followed again by ibn meaning the name of the father of his father. This is then followed by the family name.

  • Where a daughter is concerned the ibn becomes bint. Her first name followed by bint (daughter of) father’s name, then ibn to indicate the grandfather’s name followed by the family name.

  • When a couple marry, the wife retains her family name and children will take the name of the father.

  • In modern times ibn and bint are often only used in official circumstances.  Additionally, addresses are likely to only included son or daughter of the father, as opposed to both father and grandfather, e.g. the first prime minister of the UAE, was addressed as Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum


  • Meeting & Greeting:

  • A long but steady handshake is common. Ensure you only use your right hand.

  • Greetings between individuals of the same gender who know each other well are often warm and include hugs and embraces.

  • Arab men or women may decline to shake the hands of those from the other sex.  This is a religious adherence practiced by many male and female Muslims.  It is not personal and it should not be taken offensively. We suggest, therefore, that men wait to see if a female offers her hand prior to offering his. 

  • Likewise, if a female offers her hand and it is refused by a male, then we suggest the use of a gesture that is often used across the Muslim world as an alternative greeting whereby the right hand is placed flat over the heart, coupled with a brief nod of the head and a smile.

  • It is polite to greet the oldest or most senior members of the group first.

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  • Communication style:

  • Small talk is common, indeed expected, and is often the prelude to business discussion.

  • Business is conducted on the basis of trust in the UAE and will fall short if individuals try to hurry on to business matters to hastily.  Take the time to get to know your counterpart by asking generic questions and showing an interest in them personally.  Ask about their children, their school, sporting interests, trips abroad etc. 

  • It may take a good few meetings and a restaurant visit before your counterpart will feel ready to move into any business transactions with you.

  • Genuine flattery will never go amiss

  • Be aware of hierarchal structures and show due respect to those in a higher position. Use titles where appropriate.

  • Never criticize Islam, the ruling classes or local traditions.

  • Never sit in a position that shows the soles of the feet. To do so is an insult as feet are considered dirty.

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  • Personal Space:

  • Maintain eye contact with people of the same sex.

  • Men should show courtesy and respect for women. Never make prolonged eye contact with a woman or compliment her on her appearance or dress.  

  • It is not uncommon for men to greet other men with a kiss or a nose rub. Male friends often link arms or hold hands.

  • Members of the opposite sex do not embrace or kiss in public

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  • Gift Giving:

  • All gifts should be of a high quality. Good perfume is acceptable even for men who take a pride in the appearance and status but such a gift for a woman should only be given by another woman.

  • Gifts with a personal touch that shows thoughtfulness are very acceptable.

  • Never give alcohol, pork products, knives or dog related items.
     

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  • Dining & Food:

  • Dining in the UAE is a very social affair and can be a means to do business also.

  • It is considered polite to arrive fifteen minutes late.

  • Expect to eat with the right hand – the left hand is considered dirty. However, if you are left handed it is acceptable to eat with a utensil in the left hand. Arabs may eat with their hand only and without utensils.  Hand cleanliness is therefore very important.  

  • Some families prefer to be seated on cushions on the floor.

  • It is not considered polite to decline the offer of more food.

  • If eating with utensils, place the cutlery facing up in the middle of the plate on finishing the meal.

  • If dining in a restaurant gives more than the service charge – up to 10% is acceptable.

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  • Taboos:  

  • Do not discuss religion or criticise Islam.

  • Men should not stare at women or offer compliments

  • Do not go outside scantily dressed

  • Non-Muslims should not enter a mosque or touch a Qu’ran

  • Kissing or cuddling in public is strictly prohibited and such conduct can result in arrest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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