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Expat Groups in the United Arab Emirates

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: July 2014

With around 80% of the total population being foreign-born, the UAE is a cosmopolitan country, and its cultural traits are to some extent a mixture. This is especially true in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two cities where most expats live. Nevertheless, there is a firm base of Arab and Islamic culture that permeates all aspects of everyday life, particularly in the smaller cities and rural parts of the country.

One of the most important of these cultural characteristics is the acceptance of things the way they are. This stoicism or fatalism is summed up in the term inshallah (if God wills it.) It should however be pointed out that the UAE society is highly dynamic, and a person’s fortunes can change quite rapidly.

Another of the most important customs of the UAE, as with other Arab countries, is that of unstinting hospitality. Emiratis are always pleased to welcome house guests and treat them with generosity, courtesy and respect. With this in mind, you should never refuse food or drinks offered as this is considered an insult to your host’s hospitality.

Hierarchy in the UAE is quite rigid. As most residents accept this as the way things are, it is important to make allowances for this in a business context. It will also be beneficial to remain calm if faced with a vexatious situation. Furthermore, you are expected to show respect, for example, by spelling Arabic names correctly.

When greeting, men usually shake hands, and Emirati men may rub their noses together or kiss each other on the cheeks. Women also kiss each other on the cheeks. By contrast, there is not normally any physical contact between men and women when they meet. A man should not shake a woman’s hand unless the woman offers her hand to shake first.

The attitude to alcohol is more permissive than in the surrounding Muslim countries. Non-citizens are permitted to drink alcohol in all the emirates except Sharjah, which is dry. To do so, you need to obtain an alcohol licence, which grants you the ability to drink a set amount of alcohol per month. Emirati citizens, who are all Muslim, and are not permitted to obtain an alcohol licence, though some still drink anyway. This is becoming quite a problem among the younger generation of Emiratis. 

Public morality in the UAE may be quite different from what you are used to. Some expats have fallen foul of the laws that reflect this morality. Behaviour such as ostentatious drunkenness, excessive public affection between the sexes (certainly full-on kissing, but sometimes even hugging), obscenity and dressing immodestly may end you up with a fine or even a brief stay in a police cell. Being alone in the company of a member of the opposite sex can also lead to arrest. The police are more likely to penalise people for these misdemeanours during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

Due to the recent exponential increase in immigrants seeking work, men in the UAE outnumber women by more than two to one. However, this immigration as arguably been a catalyst for the country to modernise. In the last two decades or so, great strides have been made in the effort to reduce the disparity between the sexes. In 1990, women made up only 6% of the workforce, the vast majority of them staying at home to raise a family. Now women make up around 43% of the workforce. Nevertheless, in many institutions, men and women are segregated, and Emirati society is still fundamentally patriarchal.

Another fundamental division in UAE society is between Emirati nationals and expats, who outnumber the former by more than four to one. One consequence of this is multiple cultural influences; for example, the Subcontinental influence is shown by Bollywood films, curry houses, vegetarian restaurants and even an emerging national cricket team!

Recently, there have been some efforts of late to preserve the local Emirati culture. For example, the government grants a US$19,000 to any Emirati man who marries an Emirati woman. Furthermore, the policy of Emiratisation gives preference to UAE citizens in certain public sector jobs.



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