Travel to Dubai and Abu Dhabi: 5 unexpected things you need to know

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You probably already know quite a few things about these amazing places, the wealth, the shopping, the cars, the robes, the oil, but here’s a few you may not have come across.

You can drink

Although a Muslim country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is quite liberal.  This is not surprising when you consider 80% of the population are expats.  However, there are strict rules about drinking that you should follow or you could be bundled off to jail and the legal system in UAE is not gentle.  The basic rules are:

Don’t be drunk in public, or even a Taxi.  Taxi drivers have been known to drive drunk passengers directly to the police station for incarceration.

Alcohol is available at hotel bars and restaurants.  There are many to choose from.

If you are working in the UAE you can purchase alcohol to take home from bottle shops, the most well-known is Spinneys. However, you can’t just waltz in there off the street and buy your drinks.  First of all, you are required by law to have a drinking licence, which you can only obtain with the written consent of your employer.  If you manage to snag one, your purchases are then restricted to a certain percentage of your monthly salary.  Veteran expats will teach you that you can get along just fine without a drinking licence.  You’ll need to take your passport, tell them you left your licence at home and buy between 400-800 Dirhams worth of product.

There’s always the possibility of a raid, but I never saw one.

Make sure you are discreet getting to your car, try to minimize the clinking sounds if you can.

Having said all that, don’t be surprised if you see local men decked out in their white  dishdasher robes and swigging a Fosters.  This moderate Islamic country seems to turn a blind eye to the odd drink.  Something I’ll never forget is seeing a couple of tipsy locals, beers in hand, singing along to ‘Living Next Door to Alice’ at a swanky cocktail bar.

Be married

Extra-marital relations are strict.  If you are travelling with a partner who you are not formally married to, you could end up in a tricky situation in the hotel lobby.  Now, this won’t happen at all hotels, however, some do have the policy that if a male and female are not married, they cannot share a room.  If suspicion is raised during check-in you may be refused service or required to book a second room.  Wearing a wedding ring is often all you need to throw then off the scent.

Cheetahs are pets


Be prepared for many unusual sightings as you travel through this country.  While the country is very modern, it has developed mega-wealth within two generations and the flaunting of status symbols is practically mandatory for local Emirates.  The most obvious is the cars, shoes and jewelry, but it extends to exotic pets too.

There are no laws restricting animals into the country which means if you move there it’s easy to take little Fluffy with you, but it also makes it easy for other animals to be imported as accessories to wealth.  I had the opportunity to get to know quite a few Emirates and their list of family pets included monkeys, lions, exotic birds and cheetahs.  In fact, cheetahs are quite a popular pet among Emirates who enjoy hunting.  They use cheetahs in a similar way the English aristocracy use hounds.  Although, I could never quite work out what they were hunting, or how the fight was fair.

You have no Wasta

Wasta, (pronounced wustah) is a cornerstone of Arabian social order and culture.  Basically it is influence derived from connections and it is used to gain an advantage.  It could be used to get your kid into an exclusive school, to get VIP tickets, or just get your own way.  Local Emirates have wasta, some have more than others, but as a foreigner you are expected to treat all Emirates as wasta heavy-weights.  On a day to day basis you can see wasta in action while you are in a queue and some local saunters to the front and is served immediately, or when there’s a traffic accident you can be sure wasta will determine who’s at fault.

Never forget, you have none.  You may gain a smudge of wasta if you become good friends with the upper echelons of UAE aristocracy, but don’t hold your breath.

Touching isn’t encouraged

I’m not just talking about public displays of affection, but all touching between sexes, including handshakes.  Again, it depends of the individual, but as a general rule do not extend your hand, particularly if you are a woman.  If you do so to the wrong person, it can be very embarrassing for both parties.  Wait for a hand to be offered to you before going in for a hand shake or any other form of greeting.

Women have status

Women have status and opportunity.

One concern for many people going to a middle eastern country is the status of women and how they will be treated.  The UAE adheres to a moderate form of Islam and the society actively encourages women in all sectors of society and the economy.

The UAE Cabinet is currently 30% women, more than the 2018 Australian Cabinet.  There are also female jet fighter pilots, something western countries are still debating.

It is true that you will see women covered, but they have choice, unlike other countries.  Some women will be in the full burqa, while others will wear the abaya and sheila scarf.  These are worn only in public or the company of men other than a husband. Sometimes you’ll get a glimpse of the clothes underneath and see ‘normal’ clothes, like skinny jeans and a top.

There is no doubt that women are treated differently in UAE than in western countries, but in my experience, it is not as a second-rate citizen, it feels more like reverence.  Women are viewed as precious and while this might be paternalistic, it is not, nor does it feel like domination.

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