While expats are likely to experience some culture shock in the UAE, the country epitomises a true melting pot of cultures. With the expat community accounting for nearly 80 percent of the UAE’s population, many foreigners who relocate here quickly slide into a somewhat 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 the Islamic code that stratifies the local culture in the UAE, 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 most considerable 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 fast from sunrise to sunset. During this time, it's forbidden to eat, drink and smoke in public out of respect for the Islamic practice, though non-Muslims may do so in private. Those not complying with this may face prosecution. Muslims break the day’s fast at sundown with a traditional feast called Iftar.
LGBTQ+ in the UAE
the legal framework in the UAE strictly prohibits any form of sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage. Furthermore, any behaviour or dress that is considered to be against Islamic principles and the country’s cultural norms can result in legal consequences, including imprisonment and deportation.
Read more about Being LGBTQ+ in the UAE.
Drinking and drugs in the UAE
Although 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 in the UAE opt to sit away from them. Conversely, men in the UAE 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.
What do expats think of Emirati culture?
"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.
►Read first-hand accounts of Expat Experiences in Dubai
Image credits: Worshippers in Dubai Mosque by Rumman Amin on Unsplash.
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.
Expat Health Insurance
Cigna Global Health Insurance.
Medical insurance specifically designed for expats. With Cigna, you won't have to rely on foreign public health care systems, which may not meet your needs. Cigna allows you to speak to a doctor on demand, for consultations or instant advice, wherever you are in the world. They also offer full cancer care across all levels of cover, and settle the cost of treatments directly with the provider.
International Movers. Get Quotes. Compare Prices.
Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.