If you're moving to the UAE as an expat or visiting for the first time, here are 14 ways life and culture in the UAE might shock you
7 November 2021| Last updated on 4 January 2022
Culture shock in the United Arab Emirates: 14 examples new expats might face.
Whether you're a new expat or you're visiting for the first time, the degree of culture shock in the UAE can vary per person.
Sometimes the differences in culture between the UAE and the country you're moving from can be pretty shocking in ways that are wonderful, insightful, and well... frustrating.
In no particular order, here are fourteen ways new expats might experience culture shock in the UAE, both in negative and positive ways.
1. No eating or drinking in public during Ramadan
As the UAE is a Muslim country, the emirates celebrates the holy month of Ramadan. For 30 days, Muslims in the UAE must refrain from consuming food and beverages, smoking, or engaging in intimate relations during fasting hours.
For non-Muslim expats or tourists in the UAE, eating or drinking in public during daylight hours is not allowed except in restaurants, cafes, and bars that are open during Ramadan. Throughout the holy month, you will find that most food outlets will place curtains or block-out their windows to ensure that all dining and drinking activities are hidden from public view.
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Non-Muslim expats and visitors are asked to follow these rules in respect to those fasting.
It's nothing to get extremely concerned about, there are plenty of places where people can still eat and drink in private. Plus, non-Muslim expats and tourists in the UAE can also get involved in the spirit of the Holy Month!
2. Yes you can live unmarried in the UAE
Previously, unmarried men and women in the country are not allowed to cohabit together. However as of November 2020, unmarried couples can live together in the UAE.
Now this might not seem like a huge culture shock to expats from western countries, but this falls more as a reverse culture shock for expats who have lived in the UAE for years as it was haram ("forbidden") in the past.
3. Public displays of affection
While the rules on cohabitation for unmarried couples has changed, excessive public displays of affection is still frowned upon. Although Dubai can be considered one of the more "liberal" places in the Middle East, it is still a conservative Islamic environment.
Holding hands while outdoors or wrapping an arm around the other might not get you into trouble, but public kissing and intimate touching could get you in hot water with local police.
So while outside, do try to keep it modest. At best, you'll simply get a few looks or offended shouts from the more conservative passerbys.
4. People of the opposite gender might move or turn away from you
Do not be surprised or offended if this happens. Most men will move or look away from women who are near, and vice versa. This is generally out of respect for the other person.
5. Tipping isn't mandatory
But it is appreciated. Tipping is not customary in the UAE and it is not compulsory.
There is no law in the UAE that says you must give anyone a tip. In 2010, UAE restaurants actually withdrew service charges that were automatically added to a customer’s bill, as this was deemed to be an act against the emirates' Consumer Protection Law No. 26.
If you're interested in tipping while in the UAE, we have a handy guide on who and how much should you tip.
It is important to note that you must never try to tip UAE civil workers, government employees, or police officials. No matter which country you’re in. Anything that can be taken as a bribe can potentially land you in jail.
6. Calls to prayer
Another one of the biggest culture shocks that non-Muslim expats in the UAE might experience is the Muslim call to prayer. There are five daily calls to prayer, and if you live in an area close to a mosque, you will hear the loudspeaker's call everyday. The call to prayer can also be heard while out and about on the street, or while in shopping malls.
During a call to prayer, restaurants, stores, and shopping centres are expected to turn off any music playing. Singing, dancing, and other public performances must not be done during these few minutes.
What should I do if I find the mosque call to prayer too loud?
Sometimes the daily call to prayer can be too loud and disrupt your sleep pattern if you live near a mosque. Loud call to prayers might also disturb families with babies and children.
If this continues to bother you, we recommend moving to another home or to file a complaint with the UAE Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department. According to the Islamic Affairs department, UAE residents are free to complain if a mosque call to prayer is too loud or too quiet.
Nevertheless, it is simply one of those things expats must get used to while living in the UAE.
7. Dressing modestly
While staying in the UAE, dress and behaviour are expected to be modest. Short skirts, mini dresses, off-shoulder blouses, crop tops, shorts, etc. will not fly in most public areas. There are times when your choice of dress can offend someone's sensibilities and they could complain about you to a nearby police officer or security guard.
Many female expats have experienced getting a warning for the clothes they wear in public, so be mindful of where you go as some places are less relaxed than others.
It's not mandatory for all women to cover their hair or wear long sleeves but as a rule of thumb, it's important to dress modestly in the UAE with clothes that are not too revealing or risqué.
When we asked expat women in our Facebook group on what other forms of culture shock they experience in the UAE, one common answer was "impatience".
According to the comments, most find that people in the UAE are often too impatient to stand in a queue or will push and shove at you when walking.
It's a common sight for unattended lines to have people cutting in the queue or bulldozing themselves to the front of the line.
As one Reddit user (@1Deerintheheadlights) says about the UAE: "Queue jumping. Happens everywhere, not just driving."
9. Bad drivers on the road
Expats in the UAE can encounter plenty of bad drivers. People who don't use their turn signals, don't use their headlights at night, drivers who cut, speed, make rude gestures, etc.
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Motor accidents happen very often in the UAE. We recommend investing in a dashcam to help you out in the event that you encounter another driver violating road rules, or if you get into a traffic accident.
10. A safe environment
The UAE has a reportedly low crime rate, and even ranked as the second safest country in the world in 2021.
Expats in our Facebook group have said that they can leave their belongings unattended in most public places and they don't have to worry about it getting stolen.
Recently the country also topped #1 worldwide for women's safety in their communities, according to a major research by Georgetown University.
In the study, over 98% of women in the UAE find that they feel safe walking alone or during night time. The UAE's safe environment might come as shock (and a relief) to those moving from countries where crime and violence against women are reportedly high.
Now this is a split view. When we asked expats about manners in the UAE, members of our online group said they appreciate how kindness and manners is a prevalent thing in the country. However, other members reported that there is a "lack of manners" among people in the UAE.
It's a good reminder that everyone's experience in the UAE will be different.
12. Befriending locals
Some expats say that it can be hard for foreigners to befriend Emiratis as they are a closed culture and are fewer in number compared to expats. It can be even harder to befriend an Emirati of the opposite gender, other expats claim.
But don't let that stop you from trying to make friends with UAE citizens! Most Emiratis tend to be very warm, friendly, hospitable people who are deeply proud of their culture.
13. Alcohol consumption
Previously, drinking alcohol in the UAE without an alcohol license was considered a criminal offence. But as of 2020, individuals will no longer need alcohol licenses to possess, sell, or drink alcoholic beverages in authorised areas.
You can only consume alcohol in private places (at home, etc.) or in licensed public areas such as restaurants and bars. Avoid drinking alcohol while outside of these places or getting drunk and disorderly, or you might run into the law.
Please note that the minimum age for drinking alcohol in the UAE is 21 years old.
14. It's a hotbed of cultures
The country is home to over 200 nationalities, according to the UAE's Government Portal fact sheet.
Expats outnumber the population of Emiratis, with Indians making up the largest expat community across all emirates.
Whether you're here to visit, live, work, or study, you will be surrounded by a big diversity of different nationalities. You will be exposed to beliefs, opinions, behaviours, cuisines, styles, festivals, events, and languages that you might be unfamiliar with. What comes off as normal to you might be considered rude in other cultures, and what is normal in other cultures might be rude in your perspective.
It's equally one of the best and most frustrating things about living in the UAE.
Experiencing culture shock in the UAE can be a very positive thing. Foreign expats who experience culture shock can experience tremendous personal growth as it presents you with the opportunity to think on your feet and adapt, to learn more about yourself, and gives the opportunity to break you out of your routine.
Other notable forms of culture shock in the UAE:
- Time isn't held to a strict standard, especially between friends, some expats note. At work, you might find people coming in way too early for appointments, or later than the agreed timing.
- The UAE's desert heat! The summertime weather and dust/sand storms can be an extreme adjustment for many foreigners.
- Taxi drivers, restaurant wait-staff, and retail employees might address your husband, brother, father, or male companion instead of you. "It makes me feel invisible sometimes," a Dubai female expat said.
- It can be hard for expats to befriend Emiratis as they are a closed culture and are fewer in number compared to expats. It can be even harder to befriend an Emirati of the opposite gender, some expats claim. But don't let that stop you from trying to make friends with locals. Most Emiratis tend to be very warm, friendly, hospitable people.
- Avoid showing the soles of your feet or shoes to locals as it can be considered incredibly disrespectful. In the Arab world, the feet are generally considered an unclean part of the body. If you ever enter an Arabic or Muslim home in the UAE, you might be asked to remove your shoes.
- Taking photos of people in public without their consent, especially of Muslim women, can be seen as offensive under UAE law. Worst case scenario is that local police may reprimand you if you're caught.