Tips for staying on the right side of the law

Visitors to Gulf countries should be mindful of the region’s deeply entrenched cultural and religious beliefs. Michelle Colman reports.

The recent arrest of a South African working in Dubai and his Ukrainian fiancé, who fell pregnant out of wedlock, was a reminder that visitors should familiarise themselves with the region’s strictly enforced laws. 

Indeed, tourist visits tend to be more fleeting and their situation does not compare with that of workers in the region, but the incident serves to focus on the fact that Gulf countries have a distinct value system that should be respected for a trouble-free stay. The area, says Annemarie Lexow, sales and marketing manager of Travel Vision, has very strong and old cultural beliefs, and visitors would do well not to offend laws and customs.

Perhaps one of the best-known taboos in the region exists around the consumption of alcohol. In Dubai, drinking is allowed in licensed restaurants, pubs and clubs, but not tolerated in non-licensed locations or public areas. Tourists must be over 21 to drink legally.

Culinary customs

The Abu Dhabi Culture and Tourism Authority, represented in South Africa by Development Promotions, suggests that if alcohol is not offered in an establishment, it is better not to ask for it. A third emirate, Sharjah, is almost completely dry and there are very few locations where alcohol is allowed.

There are constraints to bear in mind when it comes to eating too. It is widely known that Muslim tradition frowns on consuming pork products, but here are some other points of good manners advised by Abu Dhabi Tourism:

  • In a hosted situation, never refuse food or an additional helping as it is considered rude.
  • When finished eating, leave your utensils facing upward in the middle of your plate.
  • Eat with your right hand only.
  • If you are eating in a local home, remove your shoes on entry.
  • If the tourist is hosting the meal, he will be expected to tip 10% over and above the service charge.

During the fasting month of Ramadan, non-Muslims can eat and drink in many hotels and restaurants. To respect those who are fasting, these areas may be screened off.  Alcohol can be purchased after sunset.  An interesting event to witness over this time is the daily Iftar feast at sunset, breaking the daily fast.

Public behaviour

Locals may take offence at swearing, spitting and aggression, and public displays of affection will cause frowns. “Very interesting, and I know South Africans will find this very hard to abide by, is the law against jay walking,” says Lexow. “Be very careful and do not try it anywhere in the UAE; you will be fined if you do not cross roads at the designated areas.”

She further warns: “If you need to carry medication with you whilst in the UAE, be sure to have a doctor’s letter to support the medication, specifying the period of travel, your illness or condition, what the treatment is for and its description.” 

This applies to medicines that are named on the UAE Ministry of Health’s restricted and controlled list, such as those containing codeine. Along with the doctor’s note or prescription, medicines should be carried in their original packing, and travellers should not take a larger quantity than they need for the duration of the trip.

Clothing etiquette

“Be mindful how you dress in public,” cautions Lexow. “Ladies do not have to cover their hair and face when walking in public, as long as shoulders and chest are covered. You might have to wear a scarf when visiting a holy site or mosque.”

Says Thaybz Khan, contemporary brand manager at Cruises International: “A good rule of thumb is covering from knees to shoulders.”

Non-revealing clothing stretches to wearing closed-toed shoes, says literature provided by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. Hemlines must fall below the knee. Dubai Tourism states that swimwear is appropriate at poolside or on the beach, but not on the streets or in malls. For men packing a business suit, darker colours are considered more professional.

Business conduct

The Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority offers some guidance on acceptable business conduct.

In a meeting, acknowledge the most senior person first. Use the right hand when shaking hands and exchanging business cards. A woman greeting a man should wait to see if he extends his hand first.

The first name is often used as a form of address, preceded by the honorific Mr, Mrs, Ms. Status is important and acknowledged by using the correct terms such as Sheikh or Sayed.

Initial meetings are usually about building relationships and trust, and decision-making can be slow and bureaucratic. While Middle Easterners may arrive late, punctuality is expected of westerners. Refreshments should be accepted and complimented on. Note that it is disrespectful to show the bottom of your shoes in a meeting.