The Middle East includes many countries and different cultures, each with their own traditions. Social expectations in a large, cosmopolitan city like Dubai will differ from those in a small town in a country like Yemen. Even within one country, beliefs and practices are likely to vary widely in different places and among different groups of people.
Nevertheless, some basic rules of etiquette apply across the region. If you’ve booked cheap flights to Dubai and can’t wait to start planning your trip to the Middle East, being familiar with these can help ensure that you don’t cause offense.
Much of Middle Eastern etiquette stems from Islamic tradition. In particular, it derives from the Islamic concept of “adab”, which encompasses qualities such as refinement, good manners, ethics, decorum, morals, decency, humaneness and righteousness.
General Tips & Advice
A greeting you’ll hear throughout the Middle East is “as-salam alaykum”, meaning “peace be with you”. The standard response to this greeting is “wa alaykumu s-salam”, meaning “and peace be with you”. If you’re not Muslim, you may not be expected to use this, but doing so is polite.
Respect for the elderly is emphasized in most Middle Eastern cultures. This means addressing the elderly first when entering a room, standing when speaking to them and serving their food first at meals.
Touch and Personal Space
Public displays of affection between opposite sexes, such as holding hands, kissing and hugging, are generally considered inappropriate. Even if you’re married, these types of touching aren’t considered tasteful in public places. However, it’s common for members of the same sex to hold hands. This isn’t considered romantic, so don’t be surprised if you see two men or two women holding hands as they walk. Holding hands in this way is simply a gesture of friendship.
Depending on what you’re used to, you may find that personal space is less closely guarded in the Middle East than in your culture. For example, don’t be surprised if you’re approached rather closely by traders when caught in the hustle and bustle of a marketplace. Also, it may be considered rude if you step away as another individual is approaching you.
Touching another person with your shoe or displaying the soles of your shoes while seated is often considered rude. In some cases, shoes are removed altogether before entering a home. The best guideline is to observe your hosts and do as they do.
Food & Dining
An emphasis on hospitality has always been associated with Middle Eastern culture. As a visitor, you should accept hospitality politely and graciously, whether it’s a cup of Turkish coffee or a lavish spread that you’re offered.
Often in the Middle East, everyone eats from a central dish, for example using wedges of bread to scoop the food up. It’s important that if you share food, you use only your right hand. Never use your left hand to eat, touch the table or touch anyone else. It’s reserved for personal hygiene. Note that even if you’re left-handed, this is a guideline you should probably adhere to.
Handshakes are used among business people throughout the region. Note that people may continue to shake hands for rather longer than you’re used to. Like for dining, always use your right hand to shake hands.
Haggling is a time-honoured tradition throughout much of the Middle East. It may even be considered rude not to haggle. So instead of being taken aback, dive right in and enjoy the negotiating process.
Tips for Women
The way you’ll be expected to behave as a woman will vary greatly depending on which country you visit, and on whether you’ll be staying in large cities or visiting smaller, potentially more conservative, towns.
In all cases, it’s best to dress conservatively, ensuring that you cover your knees and shoulders. Avoid bare midriffs, tank tops and halter tops. In some cases, it’s a good idea to wear a headscarf. In more conservative countries, you’ll need to be completely covered, so do your research beforehand.
Blonde women attract curiosity in parts of the Middle East, so expect more attention if you have golden locks.
In many parts of the Middle East, it’s uncommon to see women travelling anywhere alone. Instead they travel with other women friends or with their families. So if you do travel on your own, you may find that you stand out. If you’re travelling with a male partner, it’s likely that most people will address him and ignore you. This may be frustrating, but accept that this is a social norm and not intended to be personally insulting.
Enjoy your Trip!
Although it may seem like there’s a lot to take in, it’s usually easy to behave appropriately in Middle Eastern countries, provided you’re polite and respectful. However, always be sure to check up on the particular traditions and requirements of the country you’ll be visiting.