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Seven ways to impress the locals on an Arabian Gulf fly-cruise

04/12/2017

Being aware of the region’s culture and customs will ensure that you make the most of your visit to this fascinating region. Dubai resident Christine Iyer offers her top tips to help you get in the swing of local life on shore.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Marhaba! It’s probably the most-used word in Arabic – and there’s a reason: it means welcome. The simple term sums up the Middle East’s legendary hospitality, which has been a main stay of the two decades I have spent in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Along with Bahrain, these countries are among the most popular in the region, thanks to their liberal views, religious tolerance, friendly locals and large expatriate populations – all juxtaposed against a skyline of ancient citadels, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, dozens of mosques, and luxury cars and hotels galore. For first-time visitors, this casual blend of the ultra-modern and age-old tradition can seem confusing, but it’s easy to acclimatise if you go prepared.

 

1) Know how to meet and greet

When introduced to the locals, gender always comes into play. While it is customary for men to shake hands with each other, a simple ‘Asalam alaykum’ will suffice if you’re a male greeting a female, unless she proffers her hand. If you are meeting a group, it is polite to greet the eldest member first. Luckily, they usually make themselves known by initiating any introductions. Male friends rub noses, which is a sign of deep friendship and respect, while women have their own form of traditional greeting: here in Abu Dhabi, every time my Emirati girlfriends and I meet, we air kiss three times. Wherever you go, expect to be offered coffee and dates. Refusing to partake can cause offence, so I always offer a polite explanation for declining, such as being off caffeine or having just eaten a large meal.

Top tip: when seated, do not point your feet upwards or expose your soles – it is considered rude.

 

2) Try the local lingo

Everyone here speaks English with a smattering of colloquial Arabic, so a good way to fit right in is to know basic salutations – the fact that you are trying to speak the local lingo will be greatly appreciated.

Sabah al-khair - Good morning

Massah al-khair - Good evening

Kay falak? - How are you?

Asalam Alaykum - Peace be upon you

Another important word to know and that you will hear a lot is Mashallah (Allah haswilled it). This is commonly used to ward off the evil eye when expressing delight or complimenting someone, especially children. Add to the end of your compliment, for example: ‘What a beautiful child, Mashalla!’ or ‘That’s a gorgeous Ferrari, Mashalla!’

Top tip: if you’re part of a group that tends to dawdle, an encouraging Yalla! (Hurry up!) is a useful addition to your vocabulary.

 

3) Have a go at haggling

Growing up in Muscat, one of the first things I learnt was how to haggle, a skill acquired while watching my mother spar over the price of various items, including gold, in the old souq. Haggling isn’t rude. It’s a perfectly acceptable – and expected –exchange to make sure both parties are happy with the transaction. Limit your haggling to the souqs and markets. It won’t go down quite so well in the shopping malls – and certainly not in the designer stores! However, any souk trader will expect you to give it a go. Always keep a friendly tone throughout and try out a few helpful phrases to get you off to a good start.

Kam howa thamanoh? - How much is this?

Ghaly jidaan! - That’s too much!

La-a - No

Na’am - Yes

Shukran - Thank you (once you’ve struck a deal)

Top tip: I like to throw in the term of endearment habibi (male) or habibti (female). It means ‘my dear’, and tickles shopkeepers pink. Used at a suitable moment, such as when the deal is close to being struck, a friendly, ‘Can’t you give me a better price, habibi?’ can often seal a bigger discount.

 

4) Respect the dress code

These Arab cities may appear Western, but showing too much skin is a big no-no. I’ve lost count of the number of times inappropriately clad tourists in Dubai have been asked to cover up by locals. You’re unlikely to get into any trouble but everyone –male or female – should try to keep their shoulders and knees covered, to avoid unwanted stares and risk causing unintended offence. I always suggest that female visitors buy an abaya – a voluminous black cloak – as soon as they arrive. Abaya shops are found everywhere, and offer fashion-conscious selections in a range of prices and styles, from simple lace trim to Swarovski crystal inlays. They’re very handy for popping on to visit the mall or a café after a day spent on the beach (don’t worry, bikinis and Speedos on the beach are acceptable, but female toplessness definitely is not).

Top tip: Pop a headscarf in your going-ashore bag – ready to whip out if you visit a mosque, where heads need to be covered.

Coffee on the sand dunes

Oqahwa - a strong, black coffee that is poured out of traditional pots with long spouts.

5) Sample the local cuisine

The UAE, Bahrain and Oman offer the best in international and local dining with a delicious array of rustic and refined dishes. Look out for the local aromatic lamb biryani, our variation of the dish of the Indian subcontinent that is fragrant with cardamom and cinnamon. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, lugaimat are a must. The sweet deep-fried dumplings are drizzled with sugar syrup and incredibly moreish. A good souvenir to take home is Dubai’s famous camel-milk chocolate.

The region is a melting pot of other cuisines, with excellent Turkish, Lebanese, Philippine, Sri Lankan, Egyptian and Indian options. In keeping with religious sensitivities, pork is off the menu at most restaurants. Hot beverages are enjoyed at every hour of the day and night. Try qahwa, a strong, black coffee that is poured out of traditional pots with long spouts, and served in tiny porcelain cups without handles called finjan (something to add to your shopping list). Hold out your cup if you want a refill; gently tilt it both ways if you’re done.

Tea is nearly as popular. Maghrabi, the Moroccan-style mint-and-lemon version, is consumed black. But my favourite is piping hot karak. Boiled up with cardamom, cinnamon and sugar, then topped with milk, the concoction is available at practically every café. A tried-and-tested way to stay hydrated outdoors is to drink fresh lime juice. Alternatively, try the local favourite laban (buttermilk). Sour and unsweetened, labanis sometimes flavoured with cumin or mint leaves, and can be bought at convenience stores. Camel milk is another regional speciality not to be left out of your tastings.

Top tip: While tipping is not expected, customers in the region tend to be quite generous and tip up to 10 per cent, even when a service tax is added to the bill.

 

6) Be aware of attitudes to alcohol and public displays of affection

Islam forbids alcohol and drinking in public is against the law. However, most hotels have licensed restaurants and pubs – great places for hanging out with the expat community. If you have enjoyed a drink or two ashore, make sure you are quiet and respectful. Like many places, rowdy visitors who have drunk too much can find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Besides, who would want to wake up with a hangover when there’s so much to see and do? Be mindful, too, of local attitudes to public displays of affection. To avoid any offence to locals, it’s best to limit your interactions to hand-holding and a peck on the cheek.

Top tip: stay hydrated and alcohol-free with some of the local drinks while on shore then head back to the ship to recall your adventures with a tipple by the pool.

 

7) Visit places of worship

Muslims pray five times a day, so if you’re on a tour of a holy site, such as Abu Dhabi’s famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, or Khamis, the oldest mosque in Manama, Bahrain, be respectful at all times. Talk in a low voice and do not stray away from your group. Remember, bare arms and legs are not allowed and women must wear a head scarf and be modestly dressed. The perfect excuse to whip out that stylish abaya you bought at one of the local boutiques.

 

Ready to impress the locals with your new knowledge? Have a look at our Dubai & Arabian Gulf fly-cruises.

 

About the author

Christine Iyer enjoyed an idyllic childhood among the forts, mountains and beaches of Muscat. A journalist who has lived in Mumbai and Bangkok, she returned to the Middle East 12 years ago as a features writer for the Oman Tribune daily in Muscat. She currently lives in Abu Dhabi, where she worked at the region's leading newspaper, The National, as a writer and editor of the daily features section. Among her favourite things to do in the UAE capital are walks on the seafront, kayaking in the mangroves and desert camping.

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