Culture Shock in Abu Dhabi


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The expat community accounts for nearly 80 percent of the UAE's population, and many foreigners that find their way to Abu Dhabi quickly slide into a fairly insular niche made up of those from home or those from places similar to home. Nonetheless, culture shock in Abu Dhabi is still a force to be reckoned with.
Culture Shock in Abu Dhabi - call to prayer at the Grand Mosque
The UAE's capital city is bound by the same Muslim mandate present throughout the country and the greater Middle East, and expats will need to make sure they're familiar with local laws, customs and behaviour. Non-Muslims are not expected to comply with Islamic code, but they are obligated to respect it; which can certainly take some adapting to in its own right.

Dress and behaviour should be modest, buying and consuming alcohol requires a licence, and living together without being married, conducting adultery and homosexual behaviour are illegal in the UAE.

Furthermore, the multicultural mix that's come to make up this emirate means that expats are likely to interact with individuals from any number of cultures in a single day. It's important to keep an open mind and to try to stay calm; remember that the Filipino taking your reservation may not have ever had to pronounce your name, and your Pakistani taxi driver may be as new to the city as you are.

Call to prayer in Abu Dhabi


One of the biggest adjustments to life in Abu Dhabi is getting used to the five-times-per-day call to prayer. Most mosques are co-ordinated, so there isn't the competing, full-on sort of call that happens in other countries. But it is loud, and everything else will almost certainly be interrupted. The congregational prayer (salat) that happens each Friday, at about noon, is much longer and some people say louder. The prayer can be heard on the street, in homes, at work, on the radio and on television, even in malls. For newcomers, it can be a stark and repeated reminder of their new surroundings.

A word about choosing lodgings in this respect: a mosque right next door can make for some very early mornings. That said, this being Abu Dhabi, there will always be a mosque nearby, so particularly light sleepers should try to choose housing as far away as possible.

Congestion in Abu Dhabi

 
Culture Shock in Abu Dhabi - abayasIt is crowded in Abu Dhabi, and the weekends are the worst. For this reason expats may want to avoid malls and supermarkets on Fridays and Saturdays – they are busier than one may have ever imagined. If failing to heed this warning, expats might find themselves boxed in by shopping carts in a massive queue at the Lulu Hypermarket fruit counter, hyperventilating and wondering how so many people are able to fit in one store.

The city's buses, introduced in 2008, pass by almost comically, crammed to the max during rush hour; the streets are choked with traffic. Taxi queues at malls stretch on for more than an hour. Even the movie theatres and the food shops on the Corniche are mobbed. The best way to deal with it is to either plan outings strategically (mornings are best) or just to learn to breathe deeply and put up with it.
 

Emiratis in Abu Dhabi
 

There is an unofficial social structure in Abu Dhabi, 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, the person who arrived seconds ago sweeps into it. Emiratis were here first, everyone else came second, and that is the way it is.
 

Men and women in Abu Dhabi

 
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; it has been explained that this is out of respect to the woman and not an act of judgement. Woman or man, almost everyone will expect you to be married and will probably be quite surprised if you are not.

 

Ramadan in Abu Dhabi

 
A non-Muslim needs to be very careful during the holy month of Ramadan. In Abu Dhabi, most businesses and offices ban

Culture Shock in Abu Dhabi - iftar feast

eating and drinking at desks – and smoking, even in smoking areas – out of respect to those colleagues who are fasting. Some set up special rooms where food and drink can be consumed. Bars and restaurants will open at night and serve alcohol, but usually will not play any music. It is extremely important to remember not to eat, drink or smoke when out on the street or in one's car: the police keep watch and have handed out fines for doing so. It is also good to remember that fasting colleagues – even those on the road during the drive home – could be growing increasingly tired and irritable as they have not eaten or had a drink all day. People frequently leave on mini-breaks during Ramadan. So, keep in mind that some more conservative destinations, such as Oman, ban alcohol altogether during this time.

 

Cultural awareness in Abu Dhabi

 
It takes getting used to, particularly when coming from countries that have become very sensitive to the most mild forms of nationalism. But here, everyone differentiates themselves. Nationality must be stated for almost every transaction, even opening a bank account or obtaining a gym membership. Comments that would seem blatantly racist elsewhere are commonplace in Abu Dhabi: whether it is a taxi driver blaming other countries for producing bad drivers or a doctor muttering about the origin of his ineffectual staff.
 

Domestic help in Abu Dhabi

 
With so many foreigners coming from countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to work so they can send money back to their families, an expat quickly realises life can be quite easy and for not a lot of money. This is strange to adjust to at first. There is VIP parking at hotels, malls, even hospitals; most stores deliver even the smallest orders. People who shouldn't be able to afford it have nannies and maids. Laundries pick up and drop off loads; people even hire others to wash their cars. Many offices employ men who are referred to as "tea boys"; they will serve hot and cold drinks, clear takeaway cartons, fetch change and even wash dishes brought from home. New expats often struggle with taking part in such a system and opt out; others take advantage but pay and tip extra in acknowledgement that the people who help them out are often supporting entire families at home. An unfortunate few who become expats in such a structure let the lifestyle change them, coming to believe they are better than others.
 

culture shock in Abu Dhabi - alcohol is banned for MuslimsAlcohol in Abu Dhabi

 
The consumption of alcohol is only legal for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi within licensed restaurants, pubs, clubs, or private venues. Westerners must obtain an alcohol licence through Abu Dhabi Police. It costs a percentage of one's salary, puts a limit on how much alcohol one can buy and is valid for one year. Although it is 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; public drunkenness is not allowed and could lead to an arrest.

 

Affection in Abu Dhabi

 
There are no public displays of affection allowed in Abu Dhabi, save married couples and men from the subcontinent – culturally, they are much more affectionate with their friends – holding hands. Public kissing or touching will at best offend local sensibilities and at worst get expats arrested. It's best to remember this goes for cars and taxis as well – you never know who is watching and it's best not to take any chances.





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Our Abu Dhabi Expert

Ann-Marie's picture
Ottawa, Canada
Abu Dhabi, UAE
I am a Canadian journalist working in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I came here two years ago to help set up a new English newspaper....
Ann-Marie

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