While expats are likely to experience some culture shock in the UAE. 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 fellow expats.
The majority of the local 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.
Religion in the UAE
Islam is the official religion of the UAE and the majority of Emiratis are Muslim. That said, 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, but it’s illegal to proselytise in the UAE.
One of the biggest adjustments to life in the UAE is getting used to the five daily calls to prayer, each of which lasts a few minutes. Most mosques are co-ordinated. On Fridays at about noon, a congregational prayer known as 'salaat al-jumu'ah' takes place and 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 a traditional feast called Iftar.
Drinking and drugs in the UAE
Though the UAE once had numerous restrictions concerning the purchase and consumption of alcohol, these have recently been relaxed. Expats no longer need a special alcohol licence to purchase, transport or possess alcohol for consumption at home. Drinking in licensed public establishments such as bars is legal for patrons over the age of 21.
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.
Expats bringing prescription drugs to the UAE should bring a doctor's note and stick well below the legal limit of what quantity of medication can be brought in.
Men and women in the UAE
Public decency laws in the UAE can be somewhat unclear, but some types of public affection may be considered indecent. It's generally best to err on the side of caution and keep public displays of affection to a minimum.
Men should not be surprised if women do not want to sit close to them. Conversely, men will sometimes move away from women, out of respect for them.
Previously, cohabitation between unmarried couples was illegal in the UAE. As part of recent law revisions, this is no longer the case and unmarried couples are free to live together.
►Read first-hand accounts of Expat Experiences in Dubai
"I think it's important to understand the local culture. If you respect the local culture, respect authorities and abide by the laws of Dubai, you will never get into trouble and you will love not only Dubai but also the UAE." Read more of South African expat Schalk's interview.
"My first culture shock was adjusting to the UAE weekend which is Friday and Saturday. Although it doesn’t seem like a big adjustment, it did make me miss those lazy Sundays in Europe. The other one was my first Ramadan experience – however, not in a negative way. Rather, it opened my eyes to a different religion and culture, and taught me how to respect different customs." Check out Serbian expat Marina's interview for more.
Are you an expat living in United Arab Emirates?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to United Arab Emirates. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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