Expats are likely to experience some culture shock in the UAE. However, the country epitomises a true melting pot of cultures, and with the expat community accounting for nearly 80 percent of the UAE's population, many foreigners who relocate here quickly slide into a fairly insular niche made up of those from home or those from places similar to home.
The majority of the UAE’s population is Muslim and the country operates according to Islamic traditions; expats will need to make sure they're familiar with local customs and behaviour. While non-Muslims are not expected to comply with Islamic code, they are obligated to respect it, which, in itself, can take some getting used to.
Dress and behaviour should be modest, while buying and consuming alcohol requires a licence. Homosexuality is illegal, as is living together without being married, and adultery.
Religion in the UAE
Islam is the official religion of the UAE and the majority of Emiratis are Muslim. However, the government is a lot more liberal in this respect than some of its neighbours; the right to freedom of religion is respected, and there is very little interference in the practice of other religions in the country.
Non-Muslim religious groups can own their own land and build houses of worship, where they can practice their religion. However, it’s illegal to proselytise in the UAE and to spread the ideas of any religion apart from Islam through any form of media or the distribution of religious literature. Those caught doing this can face criminal prosecution, imprisonment and deportation.
Nevertheless, non-Muslim groups do openly advertise religious functions such as holiday celebrations, religious gatherings and fundraising events in the local printed media and across social media platforms. Non-Muslim celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Diwali and Onam are also marketed by some retail outlets offering specials and selling decorations and foods for these occasions.
One of the biggest adjustments to life in the UAE is getting used to the five daily calls to prayer. Most mosques are co-ordinated and the congregational prayer salat that happens each Friday, at about noon, is considerably longer. The prayer can be heard on the street, in homes, at work, on the radio and television and even in malls. For newcomers, it can be a repeated reminder of their new surroundings.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are required to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public during the fasting hours (sunrise to sunset) out of respect for the Islamic practice. Those not complying with this may face prosecution.
Working conditions during Ramadan may vary, with some workplaces adopting a traditional approach, forbidding any eating, drinking or smoking, while others have more relaxed environments where designated rooms are allocated for non-Muslims to eat and drink. Muslims break the day’s fast at sundown with water and dates, and then enjoy the Iftar feast.
Drinking and drugs in the UAE
The consumption of alcohol is only legal for non-Muslims within licensed restaurants, pubs, clubs or private venues. Westerners must obtain an alcohol licence through the local police if they wish to purchase alcohol. It costs a percentage of one's salary, puts a limit on how much one can buy and is valid for one year.
Although it’s possible to buy alcohol without a licence at some shops, expats should not do so. Nor should they carry alcohol on the street or transport it in their cars, as they can be arrested in the case of an accident or if they are stopped by police. Bars are tucked away from the streets in hotels, and public drunkenness is not allowed and could lead to an arrest. There is also a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving. The minimum drinking age is 18.
It's strictly illegal and forbidden to bring drugs into the UAE. Even the slightest residual amount can result in arrest, a four-year imprisonment and then deportation. This is not a law to take lightly. Even those simply transiting through major airports are subject to strict searches.
Expats bringing prescription drugs to the UAE should bring a doctor's note and should make an effort to notify authorities beforehand.
Emiratis in the UAE
There is an unofficial social structure in the UAE, and Emiratis are at the top. It's not unusual to be standing in a queue to order ice cream or buying a pair of shoes, only to find an Emirati has jumped to the front of the line and commanded the cashier or server's attention. It's also possible to be waiting in the heat for 15 minutes for a taxi and when one stops, a person who arrived seconds ago sweeps into it.
Men and women in the UAE
Overt public displays of affection are not allowed in the UAE. Public kissing or touching will at best offend local sensibilities and at worst get expats arrested. It's best to remember this goes for when in cars and taxis as well – anyone could be watching so it's best not to take any chances.
Men should not be surprised if women do not want to sit by them. Conversely, men will sometimes move away from women, out of respect for them. This frequently happens in movie theatres and airplanes. Western women who do not cover their shoulders may find men turning away from them; this is out of respect to the woman and not an act of judgement.
Marriage and co-habitation in the UAE
It is illegal for a man and woman who are not married to cohabit in the UAE. However, it is clear, given the number of unmarried Western couples living in the country, that this law is neither adhered to, nor enforced with any vigour. Many unwed couples give the illusion of being married by referring to each other as husband and wife and wearing ‘wedding’ rings. The general rule is to keep a low profile; the police do not actively seek out cohabiting couples (although they are more vigilant during the holy month of Ramadan), but it should be remembered that it is illegal and lawbreakers can be punished with a prison term, deportation or both.