The people of the Middle East have very particular traditions and customs. These customs may seem strange and even awkward, especially if you are a first-time visitor, but Arabs follow them quite strictly. While you should always try to comply with local rules and norms, most people in the Middle East will be too polite to say anything if you break one of the region’s taboos. In fact, an apology may earn you instant forgiveness.
Every visitor should be aware of the fact that the majority of the population in UAE, over 80%, is Muslim. The influence of the religion on etiquette is significant – as it is in many Muslim countries. Local customs represent a mixture of the great influence of religion, strict country traditions, innovative and rich surroundings, and the multinational society that lives there. Due to the high number of resident foreigners, the UAE has become cosmopolitan and tolerant, taking into account the wants and needs of tourists and travelers from different cultures, backgrounds, and faiths.
Although the vast majority of Muslims do not drink alcohol, it is available for consumption in restaurants and some nightclubs. You should keep in mind, however, that the etiquette of the country does not permit any unseemly behavior after drinking alcohol. You could also be guilty of a public disorder offence. Drinking etiquette in UAE is very different from non-Muslim countries, so it is essential for foreigners not to binge drink while visiting.
The main idea of Arab Etiquette is politeness. UAE citizens consider meeting etiquette as a set of very important rules that should be strictly followed. The same applies to communication etiquette between the sexes. Therefore, it is important that you adopt similar habits. In some formal situations, you are likely to be greeted with the phrase “salaam aleikum” meaning “peace be upon you.” Note that the polite answer will be “aleikum assalaam”, which translates as “and upon you peace”.
Meeting etiquette in UAE requires handshakes when greeting. Notice that Arab handshakes are gentle compared to the firm ones in the West. In this culture, simply touching palms of the right hands would definitely be fine. Address colleagues as ‘Mr’ (Sayed) or ‘Mrs’ (Sayeda). When meeting a woman, a handshake is not obligatory, unless she initiates it. If you pay a visit to someone, remember to greet the host first, and then each of the other guests afterwards. In less official meetings, women may kiss each other on the cheek.
Note that in Arab culture it is very important to make eye contact when meeting someone; eye contact with a smile tends to suffice.
It is extremely important to remember that you should only shake hands with your right hand. The tradition stems from the belief that left hand is unclean since it is thought to be used for “personal sanitation” purposes! Therefore, whether you’re shaking hands, eating, offering or taking something – the proper etiquette is to always use your right hand only.
Any style of clothing is reasonable in the UAE as long as it is modest and elegant. You should remember that loud colors, offbeat clothing, and way-out styles are considered vulgar. Moderation of clothing is one of the significant issues in the Middle East, and it applies equally to women and men. Be mindful not to wear clothing that is too revealing (including open-toed shoes) and to cover your shoulders, arms and legs.
If your clothing is deemed inappropriate, you may be approached by locals (such as security guards, colleagues, etc.). If this happens to you, stay calm, politely apologize, and head back to your hotel to change into something more modest. While visiting Dubai, try to avoid extras; it is best to err on the safe side and pack your most conservative clothing options.