What is the correct way to greet in Arabic? How do you contact the relevant bodies for matters concerning the hospital, police or ambulance? What are some basic Arabic words and customs to keep in mind when dealing with the locals? These are just a few of the questions that most newcomers and visitors to the UAE might have. In this fact file, we share with you a few key words/phrases and customs to help you understand how things are often done in the UAE.
Status is important and must be recognized by using the correct title when addressing someone. It is important to greet and acknowledge the most senior person in the room first. Arabs generally address people by their first names, so David Brown will be addressed as Mr David.
Muslim women are unlikely to shake a man’s hand especially in public. Therefore, when a man is introduced to a Muslim woman, it is advisable to wait and see if she extends a hand. When a woman is introduced to a Muslim man, she should also wait to see if he offers his hand.
Always use the right hand when greeting. Among Muslims, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered unclean. The right hand should be used for eating, shaking hands, or handing over an item.
In conversation, it is good to enquire about an Emirati’s family with specific reference to his or her children. This is a good way to build trust and to connect with your Arab counterparts. It is in poor taste for men to ask about their counterpart’s wives or daughters. Do not ask how many wives they have!
Most Emiratis greet by saying “As- salaam alaikum”. This is translated to mean ‘peace be upon you’. The response is usually “Wa alaikum as- salaam” (‘and upon you be peace’).
Children are taught at an early age how to greet members of the family as well as their neighbours (friends). It is common to see Arab men greeting each other with a “nose kiss” or khashm-makh. The Khashm-makh is a tribal custom and way of greeting that represents the values of respect, pride and Bedouin identity upheld by most Arabs in the Gulf region. Women from traditional families also practise this, especially grandmothers, towards their daughters and grandchildren. It is not uncommon to see men holding hands. This is a sign of friendship, solidarity and kinship.
Henna & Kohl
You will see many women sporting beautiful henna designs on their hands. Henna has been used for centuries for many Emirati celebrations especially for women. It is normally applied to hair, hands and feet. Men use henna to colour their hair, beards and moustache. Emirati women, young girls and some men use kohl (eyeliner) to make their eyes appear stronger. This is also a traditional practice that has been used for many centuries.