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Being Clueless about UAE Culture Won’t Protect You from Punishment


A survey by the UAE’s security magazine, 999, has shown that most expatriates visiting the UAE are doing so while blind to UAE cultural customs and traditions.

Seven out of ten of the 2,000 expatriates included in the survey claimed to not understand local Emirati culture and traditions.

In a multicultural country that plays host to over 200 nationalities, and in which the indigenous Emirati population are in the minority, it’s a sad reality that the majority of UAE expats have such limited understanding.

Also notable is that the UAE security forces generally show zero tolerance to those breaking the law or offending local sentiments.

Know the Laws

In a country in which very few understand the local culture, then it’s sensible to imagine that breaking the law is fairly easy.

In fact, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK has been involved in some shape or form with over 1,350 British female detentions alone in the UAE over the past five years.

Take for example the case of Rebecca Blake who was jailed in 2013 when accused of having intercourse in the back of a taxi, which she strongly denied. The taxi driver alerted police to his concerns and Rebecca, along with an Irish man were both arrested and sentenced.

Culturally, men and women in the UAE don’t display affection towards each other in public. The different sexes should also not be unchaperoned or in the company of each other if they are unmarried. For Rebecca’s tax driver therefore, seeing Rebecca being intimate with a male in the back of his car would have caused him a great deal of upset.

It’s possible that the couple were only kissing – albeit in a rather heated way – which shows very clearly how something viewed innocently outside of the UAE can be viewed very differently by an Emirati. To the taxi driver, this behaviour was clearly sexual.

The couple is also reported to have had alcohol in the taxi with them. Again, in many cultures, this is absolutely fine, but in the UAE it is not. Although non-Muslim expats can drink in venues that have the necessary licences, or, alternatively, drink in private at home, it is against the law to be seen under the influence of alcohol.

Being found under the influence could well land you in hot water and potentially even result in imprisonment. Even those passing through the UAE on transit can be arrested if they are considered to be under the influence of alcohol. See, for example, the online account of Ellie Holman and her daughter.

What this example makes clear is that cultural training is essential for those relocating to the UAE as expats, or even for those visiting the country on holiday.

Know the Culture

Learning about Emirati culture helps individuals to win the respect of the local Emiratis with whom they are interacting and avoid seemingly innocent behaviours which have severe consequences in the UAE.

Pleading cultural or legal ignorance will not help.

It is the strong view of Commisceo Global that companies sending expats out to the UAE on assignment should be legally bound to take responsibility for the wellbeing and safety of their expatriate employees by ensuring that they are culturally well trained and briefed before their assignment.

Not only does this ensure expats represent their companies positively and get the best out of their business relationships but, critically, it helps ensure that staff do not end up in life-changing punitive situations.

There is an abundance of information online which can help inform outbound expats and for those companies who want to go that little bit further and fully equip their staff with the additional knowledge of how to navigate business culture in the UAE, then there are a number of professional cultural training companies who can help.

We will summarise this blog with UK government advice for the UAE which states that:

'There may be serious penalties for doing something that might not be illegal in the UK. You are strongly advised to familiarise yourself with, and respect local laws and customs’

Commisceo Global Consulting is a leading industry trainer in online cultural training for the UAE.

Whatever your expatriate and relocation training needs, contact us on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Photo by Felix Berndt Photography on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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