Emirs, Etiquette and Even-Toed Camels

By Jheri St. James

The Palm at Osmy

     Many people call United Arab Emirates the “Singapore (or Hong Kong) of the Middle East”. The success of oil and gas production, tourism building, the relatively low price of commodities, warm temperatures that prevail for most of the year, engineering marvels such as Burj Al Arab and The Palm Islands, and friendliness to the West have all been contributors to this comparison. This oil-rich Middle Eastern country, a union of seven sovereign sheikhdoms, was formed when the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1971. Located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf, they were previously known as the Trucial states or Trucial Oman in reference to a 19th-century truce between the British and some Arab sheikhs. Bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia, the states are named Abu Dhabi (Abu Zaby) (the capital), Dubai (Dubayy), Ajman, Fujayrah, Ras al Khaimah (Ra’s al Khaymah), Sharjah (Ash Shariqah) and Umm al Qaiwain (Umm al Qaywayn), each of which has its own Emir (a prince, chiefton or governor). These seven men appoint the prime minister and cabinet for the Emirates. Islamic ideals and beliefs provide the conservative foundation of the country’s customs, laws and practices.

* * *

     When in the UAE, do as the locals do. The observation of business etiquette, manners protocol, and cross-cultural communication rules are vital to a visitor’s communications success in this country:


  • Most of the body must always remain covered; however traditional clothes on foreigners may be offensive.
  • Men: wear long pants and long-sleeved shirt, buttoned up to the collar; no jewelry.
  • Women: high necklines, sleeves below elbows; hemlines well below knee; no pants—“baggy concealment” should be the goal.


  • Avoid admiring an item to excess; host may feel obligated to give it to you; it is impolite to refuse gift offered to you.
  • Do not give gifts of alcohol or perfumes containing alcohol; pork, pigskin, personal items like underwear, knives, dogs or pictures of dogs, nude photos or art are also considered impolite.
  • Be ready to remove shoes upon entering a building; follow host.
  • Alcohol and pork are not consumed by Muslim people.
  • Greetings/Hands – men shake hands with men; some with women (women must wait until hand is offered). Men grasp each other’s right hands, left hands atop, then kiss each cheek. Male friends may walk hand in hand. The left hand is considered unclean; gesture and eat with right hand; do not point at another person. Also thumbs-up gesture offensive to some.
  • Showing bottom of shoe or foot is offensive; do not cross legs.


  • Salaam alaykum” is customary greeting. Shaking hands and saying “kaif halak” follows.
  • Communication is slow; no need to speak during long silences.
  • “Yes” usually means “possibly”.
  • Do not discuss Israel or women (not even health of wife or daughter).
  • Meetings are commonly interrupted by phone calls and visits from friends and family.
  • The person at the meeting who asks the most questions is likely least important; decision maker is likely a silent observer. (www.cyborlink.com/besite/uae.htm)

     There are many other visa, national security and criminal issues of which a traveler might wish to be aware while traveling in this young nation.

* * *

     The UAE is a modern, developed country with a high standard of living and tourist facilities are widely available. In recent years the government has sought to diversity its sources of income and lessen its dependence on finite oil reserves. One result of these efforts is a steadily developing tourism industry, boasting mountains, beaches, deserts, oases, camel racing, Bedouin markets and the legendary duty-free shopping of Dubai, all packed into a relatively small area.

     Before the discovery of oil in the 1950’s, the UAE’s economy was dependent on fishing and a declining pearling industry. But since 1962, when Abu Dhabi became the first of the emirates to begin exporting oil, the country’s society and economy have been transformed. Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE at its inception, was quick to seize on the potential of the oil industry, ensuring the development of all the emirates by reinvesting oil revenues back into healthcare, education and national infrastructure. Sheikh Khalifa is president at the time of this writing.

Abu Dubai’s Cityscape

     The UAE’s population of 4.041 million consists of over 3.23 million non-nationals—50% South Asian, the remainder being Emirati, Arab, European and East Asian. Islam is the state religion, however there are sizable minorities of Christians, Hindus and other faiths. Arabic is the country’s official language and it is used in the government and bureaucracy, while English is increasingly important commercially and as the lingua franca for non-Arab expatriates. About 90% of the population can read and write.

A Female Teacher

     The government is committed to preserving traditional forms of art and culture via the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. Change is apparent in social life however—attitudes towards women are shifting, and new sports like the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup, held annually in March, are becoming popular—alongside traditional camel racing.

Bactrian Camel

     A camel is either of the two species of large even-toed ungulates in the genus Camehus, the Dromedary (single hump) and the Bactrian Camel (double hump). Both are native to the dry and desert areas of Asia and northern Africa. Camels are well known for their humps. They do not store water in them as is commonly believed. Their humps are a reservoir of fatty tissue, while water is stored in their blood. This allows them to survive days on end without food or water. Maybe latent hunger and thirst explain their reputation for prickly personalities.

     Humans first domesticated camels many thousands of years ago. The Dromedary and the Bactrian Camel are both still used for milk, meat, and as beasts of burden—the Dromedary in northern Africa and western Asia; the Bactrian Camel further to the north and east in central Asia. Although there are almost 13 million Dromedaries alive today, the species is considered extinct in the world at large. Interestingly, there is a substantial feral population, estimated at 700,000 in central parts of Australia, descended from individuals that escaped from captivity in the late 19th century. This population is growing at approximately 11% per year, and Australians are called upon to destroy many of their overpopulation.

     A sidebar camel issue is that in May of this year, the UAE government banned camel racing with the use of underage jockeys—children under the age of 16. UNICEF has been aiding in the repatriation of these children to countries like Bangladesh; more than 100 remain in the UAE and UNICEF is working with officials to repatriate them as soon as possible. (2003 The New Nation)


* * *

     The United Arab Emirates are a part of the Persian Gulf Khaleeji tradition, and are also known for Bedouin folk music. Distinctive dance songs from the area’s fishermen are also well-known, but the country’s most famous performers are Ahlam, the first female pop star in the Gulf, Aithah Al =-Menhali, and Ali Burroghr, who has now requested that his recordings be banned as he is living a strict matowr lifestyle.

One of Many Mosques

     The UAE has undergone a profound transformation, from an impoverished region of small desert principalities to a modern state with a high standard of living. Present levels of production, oil and gas reserves should last for more than 100 years. The government has increased spending on job creation and infrastructure expansion and is opening up its utilities to private sector involvement. In April 2004, the UAE signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with Washington, and in November 2004 agreed to undertake negotiations towards a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. With a median age of 27.9 years, there is a young population growing right along with this young country.

     Common Ground 191’s soil collector in this fascinating country was Sam Rifki, who lives in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the largest and most populated of the seven Emirates and the Federal capital of the UAE. It occupies an area of 26,000 sq. miles. The shallow waters of the Southern Gulf, extending from the base of the Qatar Peninsula in the west were once the world’s best waters for pearling. He says, “Al Ain is a city in Abu Dhabi. The Al Ain Desert is different than any other desert. The sand color is red. It is beautiful.” In addition Al Ain is surrounded on three sides by rolling sand dunes. Some of the largest sand dunes in the world can be found on Abu Dhabi and all have the deep orange sand which distinguishes this region. Al Ain is an oasis city having a history dating back to the 4th millennium B.C. Today it is the home of the UAE University, the country’s largest museum, zoo, parks, gardens and guesthouses. Over 120 million trees have been planted in the emirate of Abu Dhabi alone. It is also one of the nation’s leading agricultural centers and is now serviced by a new international airport. We thank Sam for his efforts on behalf of Common Ground 191 and have enjoyed adding the beautiful red sand of the United Arab Emirates to our art project.

     The above picture metaphorically says it all—a gas and oil-powered vehicle traversing a sand dune. The United Arab Emirates is a moving country, poised atop the shifting sands of changing times, morés and fortunes. It will be interesting to follow the future of its Emirs, etiquette and even-toed camels.







All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved