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Abu Dhabi Culture and Customs

If you decided on moving to Abu Dhabi, a certain amount of culture shock is inevitable for western expats. As well as a legal system that is based on foundations radically different to those in, say, the US or Europe, there are also large differences in what is considered proper behaviour when out and about.

It is of course impossible to please all of the people all of the time but the following guidelines should provide a decent framework for getting on and getting along in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi culture: dos and don’ts

Alcohol and drinking

Abu Dhabi Culture and Customs: alcohol

Do: enjoy alcohol at licensed bars (usually attached to hotels) and at home. Most bars in Abu Dhabi are well stocked - unlike other Middle Eastern cities. You can purchase alcohol for home consumption from a number of special liquor outlets (e.g. Spinney’s) which technically require a special expat liquor permit but often accept any proof that you’re not a native.

Don’t: get excessively drunk in public. You’re much more likely to get locked up for being drunk and disorderly in the UAE than at home and any drink aggravated offences (especially driving offences) are likely to result in deportation. Any alcohol in the blood while driving is illegal.

Driving in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi Culture and Customs: driving

Do: get a car. Visiting nearby towns like Al Ain or Dubai can only really be done by automobile. Unlike neighbouring Saudi Arabia it’s legal for women to drive.

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Don’t: expect driving to be easy. The UAE is perceived to have some of the world’s most dangerous roads due to the reckless behaviour of many young men. The way roads are laid out and numbered is also very different to the Western style and takes a bit of getting used to.

What to wear

Do: feel free to dress in the Western style. Again the UAE is fairly liberal when compared to some other Middle Eastern nations. At resorts, malls and health clubs in particular you’re free to wear pretty much whatever you like.

Don’t: push it too far. A certain amount of respect for local customs is advised. Tight or revealing clothing will attract unwanted attention on the streets and you should cover your shoulders and legs when entering government buildings.

Religious beliefs and customs

Abu Dhabi Culture and Customs: religion

Do: get to know Islamic beliefs and practices. While other religions are protected, Islam is central to UAE life so familiarity with prayer routines, Islamic festivals and the timing and consequences of Ramadan will greatly ease your transition into Abu Dhabi.

Do: shake hands at the end of a meeting as well as at the beginning.

Don’t: offer a handshake to an Arabic woman first, but wait for her to offer her own hand.

Do: accept offers of food or drink made by an Arabic host - to refuse might be considered rude.

Don’t: be overly complimentary in the home of an Arabic host - this might be construed as a request that the complimented item be given to you as a gift.

Don’t: be openly gay, avoid any public displays of affection with a member of the same sex. Unfortunately homosexuality is still illegal in the UAE and will most likely lead to the arrest and deportation of a gay expat if their sexuality is made widely known.