Heading to the United Arab Emirates on your next school trip? Looking forward to discovering Dubai? Dubai itself is pretty cosmopolitan and tolerant of foreign visitors.
However, as a Muslim country, there are some things that could cause offence, that we simply wouldn’t bat an eyelid to here in the UK. So, it’s worth making sure that your group are aware of some of these key aspects of etiquette to avoid inadvertently causing offence to the Emiratis.
GreetingThe usual greeting is ‘salaam aleikum’, which means ‘peace be with you’. The response to this is ‘aleikum assalaam’, which means ‘and on you peace’.
Men usually shake hands when meeting, but this is normally lighter than in the West, where we tend to prefer a firmer handshake.
And if you are a non-Muslim meeting someone of the opposite sex, you should wait to follow their lead when it comes to shaking hands or not. They may prefer not to for religious reasons.
It is VERY important that you only use your right hand when shaking hands. Or, indeed, when passing or taking something, as the left hand is considered unclean.
ClothingThe UAE is a Muslim country and, as such, visitors should dress conservatively and modestly. For both sexes, this means covering legs, backs and shoulders. Women especially should avoid short skirts and low cut tops.
Swimsuits are acceptable around private beaches and pools.
Women are not required to cover their head unless entering a mosque.
Eating and drinkingHygiene is considered very important in all Middle Eastern cultures, so you should wash your hands before you eat. And if you need to blow your nose, you must excuse yourself and do so outside or in the toilet.
Picking your teeth is acceptable and you may find that toothpicks are provided.
You should only take food from your side of the table – stretching across is considered very impolite.
The service charge will usually be included in the bill. However, it is still customary to tip good service. 10-15% is normal, but rounding the bill up to the nearest note is also sufficient.
Visiting a mosqueRegardless of your sex, you should be modestly dressed with legs, arms, chest and back all covered. Women should also cover their head.
You must remove your shoes before entering a mosque – you will offend if you forget to do this.
You must not stare at worshippers, walk in front of worshippers or step on someone’s prayer mat.
Visiting a homeA gift would certainly be welcome. Some good gift options include flowers, chocolates, pastries, fruit or honey.
You must remove your shoes before entering someone’s home.
Try to leave a little bit of food on the plate to show that you’ve been well fed.
Always use your right hand to eat and pass food, and NEVER use your left hand.
And if coffee is offered, accept it.
If incense is passed around, this is a signal that the meal has ended and the host would like you to leave.
Travelling during RamadanDuring Ramadan, Muslims fast (i.e. do not eat, drink or even chew gum and the like) during daylight. They also avoid doing anything that is incompatible with Muslim values.
If you’re a non-Muslim travelling to a Muslim country, such as the UAE, during Ramadan, it is understood that you are not under the same obligations. However, you should be sensitive to those fasting and be very careful to avoid offensive behaviour.
It is forbidden to eat in public during daylight hours in the UAE during Ramadan. Of course, you may eat in private, and your hotel may even provide a screened area with a limited service. And supermarkets will remain open, so you will be able to purchase food and drink.
But you could be fined for eating, drinking, or even chewing gum in public – so it’s really important to avoid this. Restaurants and cafes will normally close – some may buck the rules to stay open for tourists, but it’s advisable to avoid these.
Because Ramadan is a time for reflection and prayer, it’s best to try to avoid making loud, disruptive noises, so that you don’t disturb people.
Despite the strict rules, Ramadan is a great time to visit the UAE, as it gives a wonderful insight into Muslim culture. If you get the chance, make sure you take the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) or Suhoor (pre-dawn feast). And don’t forget to check out the fantastic Ramadan sales.
This is unlikely to be an issue, but it is worth mentioning that criticism of Islam, Sharia, politics, local authorities or Palestine should be avoided.
Another subject which shouldn’t apply to school trips but is worth mentioning, is that public displays of affection are not acceptable and should be avoided.
And swearing and making rude gestures are considered obscene acts, with offenders risking jail or deportation.
Avoid pointing with your finger – if you need to point or gesture at something you should use your whole hand.
When taking photographs, you should avoid taking pictures of UAE nationals without their consent, and this is particularly important in the case of women. You should also be careful when taking photographs around military and government buildings.
Useful phrases in ArabicGreetings – Assalaam alaykum (reply with ‘alaykum assalaam’)
Hello – Marhaba
Goodbye - Maasalaamah
Sorry/excuse me – Affwaan
Please – Min fadlak
Thank you – Shukrun
Yes – Na’am
No – La
Stop, finish, done - Khalas