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 still occurs. 

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 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 is illegal in the UAE, as is conducting homosexual behaviour and adultery.

The multicultural mix that makes up Abu Dhabi means that expats are likely to interact with individuals from any number of cultures in a single day.

Call to prayer in Abu Dhabi

One of the biggest adjustments to life in Abu Dhabi is getting used to the five daily calls to prayer. Most mosques are co-ordinated. The congregational prayer salat that happens each Friday, at about noon, 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.

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

It is very crowded in Abu Dhabi, especially over the weekends. For this reason expats may want to avoid malls and supermarkets on Fridays and Saturdays – they are busier than one may have ever imagined. 

The city's buses, introduced in 2008, pass by almost comically, crammed to the max during rush hour when 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.

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; this is out of respect to the woman and not an act of judgement.

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 eating and drinking at desks 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. Expats frequently leave on mini-breaks during Ramadan. 

Cultural awareness in Abu Dhabi

It takes getting used to, particularly when coming from countries that have become very sensitive to the mildest 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 and send money back to their families, an expat quickly realises that daily life can be easy and affordable. This is strange to adjust to at first. There is VIP parking at hotels, malls, even hospitals; most stores deliver even the smallest orders. 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" to 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 choose to 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.

Alcohol 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 the 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’s 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

Overt public displays of affection are not allowed in Abu Dhabi. Public kissing or touching will at best offend local sensibilities and at worst get expats arrested. It's best to remember this goes for when in cars and taxis as well – anyone could be watching so it's best not to take any chances.

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