Traveling in a Muslim Country

Middle Eastern society is generally considered both more formal and more traditional than Western society. People less familiar with the region should be aware of different rules of etiquette. Middle Easterners are also social and personable people who are interested in their guests and who expect their guests will be interested in them. The guidelines below are adapted from information prepared by the Middle East Institute for visitors to the region.

Culture

Language

Both English and Arabic are the most widely spoken languages in the UAE, though because of its diverse expatriate population, visitors may also hear Urdu, Hindi or Pashtu. Arabic dialects are numerous, but several basic phrases are the same throughout the region, such as:

  • Salaamu aleikum (“Peace be upon you,” used like “Hello”)

The response: “Wa aleikum a-salaam” (“And unto you peace”).

  • Ahlan wa sahlan (“Welcome,” very common of Arab hosts)

Food

The act of communal eating is a highly recognized outward expression of friendship in the Middle East.

  • Do not eat with your left hand, which is considered unclean.  Also, in many places, it is considered polite to leave a bit of food on one’s plate.
  • Do not ask for pork or pork products. Muslim tradition frowns on consuming pork, and observant Muslims consume Halal food, which involves a particular preparation of the meat.
  • Arab hosts will always offer tea or coffee. A gracious guest will accept the gesture.
  • Observant Muslims do not drink alcohol or smoke. In the UAE, alcohol is served in most hotels but may not be available in local restaurants. If alcohol is not offered, it is better not to ask for it.

Women

Women traveling in the UAE are not expected to cover their heads or wear traditional Muslim dress. When visiting a mosque, women will be asked to respect Muslim tradition and wear an abaya and cover their heads.  Often, this will be provided at the mosque.

Photography

Do not take photos in mosques or at military installations. If you would like to take a photo of a Middle Eastern person, especially a woman, ask permission first.

Formal Interactions

Personal Presentation

It is an insult to show the bottom of your foot to another person. It is best to keep both feet on the floor.  Modest dress is best for men and women.

Boundaries

When asking about a Muslim person’s family, keep questions general and do not ask specifically about the spouse.

Handshaking

Men shake hands.  Women should wait until the man extends his hand. Pious Muslim men may not shake hands with women.  Pious Muslim women do not shake the hands or touch men who are not in their families. Rather, they might simply put their hand over their hearts to show their sincerity in welcoming the visitor.

Etiquette

Generosity and thoughtfulness are extremely admirable and respected in the Middle East and Arab cultures.

  • If you are about to eat, even if there is only enough for one person, it is considered polite to offer the food. The offer might be politely declined, but it is important to extend the offer.
  • Standing up for new guests and especially older, higher-ranking people is important. Typically, elderly people are greeted first. Men also are expected to stand when a woman enters.

Work Days and Weekends

In the UAE, Friday is the holy day and day of rest. Weekends are Friday and Saturday.

Concept of Time

The concept of time in the Middle East is generally seen as fluid, and many Middle Easterners are more relaxed about when an appointment or event ends or begins, both at work and at a social gathering. Visitors should always be on time or notify the host if you will be delayed because of traffic or other reason. But it would not be unusual for visitors to be kept waiting.

Interaction between Males and Females

It is common to see men walking together holding hands, but men and women generally do not unless they are married or related.

Religion

Islam

Islam is the predominant religion in the UAE. It is based on five pillars:  Profession of faith, Prayer, Fasting, Charity and Pilgrimage.

  • Muslims pray five times a day: dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night. Muslims may pray in public places. In the workplace, a room or space is usually designated for prayer.
  • In the fall, Muslims observe a full month of fasting and festivities, called Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and smoking between sunrise and sunset. When visiting during Ramadan, refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public or in front of staff or business associates. Food will be available at hotels for non-Muslim guests. Do extend the traditional greetings of Ramadan, “Ramadan Kareem”  (“Happy – or blessed - Ramadan”).
  • During Ramadan, families and friends break their fasts together at a huge meal called iftar. Do accept an invitation to iftar. It is a wonderful experience and great introduction to family life in the Middle East.

Other Religions

The UAE’s Constitution declares that Islam is the official religion. However, the UAE government follows a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religions. There are a number of Christian churches, as well as a Hindu temple complex.