4 UAE Culture Shocks Every Expat Should Be Aware Of

4 UAE Culture Shocks Every Expat Should Be Aware Of

Moving abroad is often romanticised as being a big adventure – particularly when moving to the exotic United Arab Emirates!

Yet no matter how well you may think you have prepared yourself and your family for the blazing sun and sand, local laws and having to pick up a foreign language, there are also some lesser-known laws that will be seriously important to remember when making the big transition…

Here, 4 British expats in the UAE describe their first-hand ‘Culture Shock’ experiences.

“Un-married couples beware!” Diane, Sharjah

“I was offered an excellent salary teaching at an International school in Sharjah, UAE. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the place, other than that Dubai was also a part of the Emirates, so I accepted and moved within a matter of weeks. I really wasn’t prepared for just how traditional Sharjah would be.

My long-term boyfriend was due to visit after two months apart, and as I was living in the same compound as a couple of my more conservative colleagues, I decided that booking a hotel for the week was the smart thing to do. It would be a safe-haven away from some of Sharjah’s more restrictive customs (no hand holding or kissing in public).

Not wanting to draw attention in the hotel reception, I waited in the room for my boyfriend’s arrival. Answering my phone to his panicked voice however, was not what I anticipated. I was shortly met by some angry knocks at the door and a summoning down to reception.

Because we weren’t married, the hotel were not willing to let us to share a room (it was against Islamic practice). They placed us in two separate suites on different floors, so we ended up paying double the cost to sneak around for the remainder of the week. It was far from enjoyable.”

Avoid Diane’s mistake:

In the UAE, sex outside of marriage is illegal. On some occasions (although rare) authorities have been known to prosecute, imprison or fine and deport offenders.

While some of the larger hotel chains in more cosmopolitan Emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been known to turn a blind-eye to Western couples staying together, it is still against the law to cohabitate with an unrelated member of the opposite sex.

Because it is commonplace for UAE locals to hold different surnames after marriage, many Expats have advised wearing a wedding ring when checking in to a hotel with your significant other. Nevertheless, MyCurrencyTransfer do not advise breaking any of the laws of the UAE.  There are plenty of other destinations available to visit as a couple. Better safe than sorry!

“Fast or be fined” Tomer, Dubai

“I’d spent a good part of a year working for a Real Estate firm in Dubai, and thought I’d become well acquainted with most of the local customs. I was always cautious about controlling my alcohol intake when I went on a night out and made sure to act conservatively around female friends in public.

When Ramadan came around, a good number of my Muslim colleagues opted to combine fasting with their usual work schedules, so I held off eating lunch in the office out of consideration. By the end of the day I was absolutely starving, had a blistering headache and my vision was starting to blur.

When I stopped at the petrol station to fill up my tank I found a bag of crisps in the car and started devouring them. Unfortunately for me, I was spotted by an eagle-eyed police officer who not only reprimanded me in front of the entire petrol station. He fined me 1000 AED (£173).”

Avoid Tomer’s mistake:

While Dubai is considered one of the more liberal destinations in the Middle East, the holy month of Ramadan serves as a strong reminder that it is still an Islamic society.

No matter what their personal level of adherence is, the vast majority of Muslims worldwide will observe Ramadan each year and this is an extremely important consideration for expats in the UAE.

The UK Foreign office recommends not eating, drinking or smoking in public view during the daytime (including in your car). “This is considered highly disrespectful. It is also against the law and failure to comply could result in arrest.”

“Watch your feet” Natalie, 43, Abu Dhabi

“Since moving the family to Abu Dhabi two years ago, my husband and I have made some great friends – both expats and locals. During my first few weeks here, the wife of my husband’s boss (a local) invited me to her house for a meal with female friends and family members.

Platters of rice, meat, salads, fruit and pastries were spread across a number of very low tables, and all of the ladies were sitting on the floor to eat. I was sitting across from an elderly woman, an Aunty i think, who had never met a Brit and didn’t speak any English.

I decided to sit cross-legged, and many of the women were wearing long abayas (gowns) that cloaked their bodies, so I couldn’t gage the right way to position myself. Although I already understood the basic etiquette of only using your right hand to eat, when I stretched a leg out to relieve a cramp, I was met with a look of absolute horror from the elderly lady opposite.

A lot of hissing and debate ensued, all in Arabic, until the host politely informed me that I had pointed the soles of my feet towards her Great Aunt who couldn’t comprehend how I did not know what a rude gesture it was.

Thankfully, the issue was resolved, and the ladies still laugh about it today, but at the time, it was absolutely mortifying.”

Avoid Natalie’s mistake:

In the Middle East, feet, especially the soles are generally considered unclean as the lowest part of the body. If you ever enter an Arabic home, you are usually required to remove your shoes. This is why it is considered incredibly disrespectful to show your soles to someone in the Arab world.

Always be aware of the way that you are sitting, and how your feet are positioned, particularly in public areas and on public transport. Strangers may not be as forgiving.

“No pictures please” Chris, 56, Abu Dhabi

“I’m a keen car photographer based in Abu Dhabi, but wanted to try my hand at taking pictures of the local scenery for a friend back in the UK. Abu Dhabi is an incredibly modern city, so I decided to travel to Ajman, the smallest of the Emirates, to see something different.

It wasn’t quite as rustic as I was imagining. In fact, it was well developed, so I took some shots at the beach. A group of covered women and children were sitting by the shore, and it made a fantastic shot. As I snapped away a firm grip came down on my shoulder and an extremely angry man (I expect one of their husbands) aggressively yanked the camera out of my hands. He threatened to smash it if I did not delete all of the photographs I had taken of the group at the shore.

Obviously, I acquiesced, but I couldn’t understand the harm. As a Londoner I am used to constantly being the butt of tourist pictures – I’m even asked to join in at times!”

Avoid Chris’ mistake:

Under UAE law, the subject of an image is the rightful owner of the picture.

Women are strongly protected in the Emirates, which means that photography of women, and particularly Muslim women, without their consent, is viewed as highly offensive. In some cases the police may even become involved.


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