An expat guide to culture in Dubai

  • Better Informed
  • 28 Nov, 2019
An expat guide to culture in Dubai

Home to sky-piercing skyscrapers, awe-inspiring architecture and beautiful beaches, Dubai is an ideal destination for culture seekers and business-minded expats alike. Home to around 3.33 million people – 85% of which are expats – Dubai is a diverse paradise where you can find people of all nationalities.

While it’s clear that Dubai boasts a truly thriving expat community, expats moving here will still need to get used to the local culture and lifestyle. Whether you’re about to make the move or you’ve just arrived, this article offers a few top tips from an experienced expat familiar with life in Dubai to help you settle into the local culture and lifestyle.

Cultural do’s and don’ts

While Dubai is a diverse and cosmopolitan city, its cultural practices tend to be quite conservative. As a new arrival in Dubai, it is important to respect the culture, the rules of the land and the locals.

For example, “dressing should be modest and respectful when going to public places such as malls and parks” explains Theresa Fianko, a Marketing Communications Specialist for Design by Mahsa and expat who has lived and worked in Dubai for twelve years. She continues to say that “one cannot wear bikinis at public beaches or pools, however, they can do so at private ones. Visits to mosques will require clothing that fully covers the entire body” – except the face. Women must also cover their hair when visiting a mosque – usually, a headscarf will be provided to you upon entry if your hair is not covered.

Some cultural customs and practices common to Dubai may come as a shock to you, especially if you’re moving from a western country. For example, new arrivals need to “be careful with public displays of affection, as this could land you in trouble. It is okay for married couples to hold hands, but not beyond that in public” says Theresa. Adding to his, sex outside of marriage is against UAE law, as is homosexuality, which is punishable via jail time and/or fines.

Getting used to the local culture and customs in Dubai can be difficult, especially if you’re accustomed to a drastically different way of life, but the more open-minded and patient you are with the new culture, the faster you’ll pick up on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of life in Dubai.

Familiarise yourself with the language

Thanks to an array of diverse people living in Dubai, the city is home to an abundance of languages. While the official language of Dubai is Arabic, you’ll find expats fluent in a variety of languages including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Tagalog, Persian, Chinese, Malayalam and more. English is also widely spoken in Dubai.

As the mother tongue, “it is good to be able to speak, read and write in Arabic because it gives you an extra advantage, especially while you live and work in Dubai. Certain jobs require fluency in both English and Arabic, for example” says Theresa. This doesn’t mean you have to be fluent in Arabic right away, mind you. A few basic words and phrases can really help with your transition and can make you feel more at home while living there.

Understand Ramadan

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims worldwide and is possibly one of the most important religious events in the Islamic calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to fast (refrain from eating and drinking) from dawn to sunset for one month per year. “Since Dubai has a predominantly Muslim population, public eating, drinking or smoking during active fasting hours is not allowed” adds Theresa.

The majority of public food and drink outlets close during the day, though most major hotels have one place to get food during daylight hours. Suhoor refers to the food that is eaten before sunrise, while the food consumed after sunset is known as Iftar. Iftar and Suhoor are large events in Muslim families’ homes and at hotels. Daytime business hours are condensed to accommodate people who are fasting and instead businesses are open much later.

Enjoy Emirati cuisine

Arguably one of the most exciting ways to get to know the local culture is through sampling the wonderful array of delicious dishes Dubai has to offer. One popular Emirati dish expats need to experiences is Majboos.

For Theresa, “Majboos is a must-try for several reasons. It is a meat dish typically made with chicken and a distinctive blend of assorted spices in rice mixed rice. Lamb or fish can also be used instead of chicken, but the blend of traditional spices and biryani is a constant ingredient. The end result is a mouthwatering local dish which is sure to whet any appetite, especially when served with chickpeas” says Theresa.

Camel milk is also an adored local delicacy which expats must try. “Camels are part of the rich history and heritage of the United Arab Emirates. Camel milk is therefore, a delicacy here. It is served at most local restaurants and even sold in convenience stores. It is highly nutritious as well, and is a must-try whilst in Dubai” continues Theresa.

Dubai also boasts an array of delectable desserts to sample. One such dessert is “Luqaimat, which is a popular and sweet dessert, and the Arabic version of a dumpling. It was traditionally served as a dessert after the breaking of fast during Ramadan, but now it features on many menus across Dubai” says Theresa.

You’ll also find plenty of international food options in Dubai, thanks to the city’s ever-expanding expat population. To really experience the local culture, however, be sure to expand your horizons and try the local cuisine. 

Complete immersion

Settling into an unfamiliar environment and a brand new culture can be difficult and time-consuming, but the more open you are about understanding and immersing yourself in the cultural differences, the more you’ll feel at home. To prepare yourself, always conduct as much research as you can. From legal documentation and work practices to healthcare and health insurance, you can never be too prepared.

Theresa also recommends that new expats “read about the laws of the country before relocating, to avoid preventable inconvenience, as most of the laws here are linked with the culture of the local people.” As with any relocation, it may take some time to adjust, but once you’ve settled in you’re free to enjoy all the delights Dubai has to offer.

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