What to Expect When Studying in the United Arab Emirates
You may find that some of the cultural and social norms of the UAE differ from that of your home country. Here is what you need to know.
A growing pool of international students are attending school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), drawn by the evolving business and cultural opportunities of this fast-growing gateway to the Middle East. With six universities ranked alongside the world’s finest by the prestigious London-based Quacquarelli Symonds international organization, the UAE offers a wide range of educational options to choose from, where you can study anything from arts, to medicine, to zoology. If you are among those considering a UAE education, you may be wondering how the experience will differ – culturally and socially – from studying in your own country.
Culture shock is inevitable, but it’s not as shocking as you might expect.
If you’ve been researching the UAE as a potential destination, you already know that it’s a crossroad for many cultures, attracting dozens of nationalities from all over the world. In Dubai, for example, more than 80% of residents hail from other countries – predominantly Asia, but also from Europe, the UK and the US. Though Arabic is the UAE’s official language, English is spoken everywhere – especially in major cities.
As an arriving student, your first exposure to the UAE will likely be Dubai International Airport, which is the world’s busiest, hosting more than 90 million passengers annually. Even seasoned travelers from Los Angeles, New York, London or Tokyo are astonished by the scale of architecture in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Meetra Najrabi, an Afghani-American accounting student, noted that the soaring structures “remind you of the largest-scale modern buildings in Atlanta or L.A. -- only those seem small by comparison.”
“The architecture is gorgeous,” noted Najrabi. “The old and the new, each in its own way.”
Though the UAE is the most diverse and tolerant of the Gulf states, Islam is the state religion and adherence to Muslim traditions – and certain laws -- is expected. For example, public drunkenness is an offense that warrants arrest and non-Muslims can only consume alcohol in licensed bars, clubs and restaurants. It is illegal to drive after drinking any alcohol whatsoever and drug possession can lead to imprisonment and deportation. Smoking, too, is forbidden outside of designated areas.
Other punishable offences are less obvious, involving habits that come naturally in other cultures. Public dancing is viewed as inappropriate and should be reserved for the home or nightclubs. Public affection is not tolerated, especially between people who are not married. You can be imprisoned for the kind of casual aggression that happens routinely at sporting events: swearing, threatening, spitting or throwing things. It’s risky to stare at or photograph women without their permission – and it is illegal to photograph airports or military and governmental buildings. Be sure to balance your checkbook, also, because bouncing checks can lead to a jail sentence.
All of these offenses are more likely to be noticed and punished during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. During this time, loud music is banned and many restaurants either close or darken their windows during the day. Despite these limitations, tourists, transplants and students quickly adapt to the daytime business closures -- and the celebratory nights of feasting (known as iftar) that follow. However, attention to laws is heightened during the religious holiday and expatriates are advised to be especially careful to avoid public drinking, displays of affection and immodest clothing.
“I decided that, especially in old Dubai, to be safe I would dress conservatively -- you can’t go wrong doing that,” Najrabi says. “The country is accepting because they have plenty of tourists, visitors and students. But I would also be cautious of anything you might do, because you don’t want to come off as thoughtless of the local culture.” It’s especially important to respect Emiratis’ space during daily calls to prayer, which happen five times a day, broadcast from the loudspeakers of local mosques. It is customary for Muslims to pray facing Mecca wherever they find themselves when the call happens – even in hallways or roadsides. Foreigners should avoid staring at or interrupting those engaged in prayer, walking around them and not in front of them.
“You have to be very open-minded to what you’re going to experience in the UAE,” Najrabi advises. “You’ll see a line of three new Ferraris pass you, then you’ll see people out there cleaning the street with hand-brooms. There’s a lot of that: new and old.” Ostentatious wealth is another element of Emirates life that can take some getting used to: lots of gold, sumptuous luxury shops, designer accessories and lavish displays. “People who are ridiculously rich are spending money like crazy,” Najrabi notes, adding, “Of course, that’s not everyone.”
Indeed, along with the gold-paneled walls and crystal chandeliers, you will find evidence of a culture untouched by modern excess. “You can explore the new Dubai, modern Dubai, which is amazingly new, with all the same malls and stores you can find at home,” Najrabi says. “But you can go to old Dubai too -- very traditional, the old souk and those areas.” Likewise, there is a distinct attitudinal difference between older, more conservative Emiratis and a younger, more international generation. For most students, it will be easier to connect with contemporaries, who tend to be more open, understanding and multicultural than older Emiratis. “You’re not going to change the older generation there,” Najrabi says. “You’ve got to work on the new generation.”
One cultural adjustment students won’t need to make is a dietary one – unless they want to, of course. “If you are attached to a Western diet, don’t worry,” Najrabi says. “You can have what you would have in Europe or the States, including smoothies and fro-yo everywhere and great restaurants -- and of course any kind of Middle Eastern food, too. You can eat whatever you want and you can even roll out to the desert -- in the middle of winter -- and have a great picnic.” Though pork is off-limits to Muslims, it is available in many restaurants and groceries. As with every other practice forbidden to Muslims, visitors are advised to be discreet about pork consumption, avoiding it at public events like barbeques or picnics.
For students arriving from other parts of the Middle East, none of the religious practices or cultural restrictions will seem surprising. In fact, Kuwaiti student Mohammad Al-Onaizi found Dubai to be comparably vibrant and open when he arrived to attend the University of Wollongong in Dubai, studying for his master’s degree in Media and Communication. “Dubai is well known for its continued economic growth and expansion,” he observes. “Kuwait, on the other hand, has stood still in terms of growth, with many economic and political problems in the country. Dubai is more open, while Kuwait is more conservative.”
Al-Onaizi was familiar with Dubai from previous visits, but living there has exposed him to differences only a resident would notice. “The two biggest differences that I’ve noticed between Dubai and Kuwait are the work ethic here -- as well as life in general,” he says. “In Kuwait, normal work times are from 8 to 2, while in Dubai it is 9 to 6. When I say life in general, in Kuwait it gets very boring where you get used to a certain routine, doing the same things every day. In Dubai however, I noticed it’s much different. There’s always something different to do every day, different people to go out with and different places to go.”
However close or far you’re coming from, the UAE will present a unique set of challenges – and equally memorable rewards. As different as its climate, economy and culture may seem to those from countries in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and the U.K., it will charm you with its diversity, history and extravagant architecture – including the world’s largest skyscraper, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. After all, as Najrabi points out, you wouldn’t be considering school in the UAE if you weren’t open to new experiences. “If you can’t adapt to new cultures you travel to, you should probably just stay where you live,” she says. According to Al-Onaizi, the key to a quick start is friendliness. “My advice is to start socializing as soon as you arrive in Dubai,” he says. “The place is a mix of people from all walks of life, so you will surely find people who you can gel with.”
About the Author: Julia Clinger is an American writer who has lived in Germany and Switzerland. She is currently an advertising copywriter in Boston, Massachusetts.