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Top 10 things to avoid doing while visiting Arab countries for the first time

posted on: Mar 23, 2021

With travel routes gradually starting to reopen, there will soon be the chance to finally visit those parts of the world that have sat waiting for too long on the bucket list. Experiencing new cultures can be an enriching experience. But sometimes, knowing what not to do is even more important than knowing what to do. 

We have all seen those headlines about unfortunate people who have got themselves into awkward situations when visiting an Arab nation. Offending the locals is bad enough. But breaking the law can be downright hazardous. Here are some general tips on things to avoid, to ensure your trip is one you always remember – and for the right reasons. 

Holding hands

Displays of affection between men and women are not for public viewing in Arab culture. If you are with your significant other, keep your hands off one another while out and about, and avoid kissing, hugging, hand-holding, or other such physical contacts. You might notice Arab men walking hand in hand – this is quite common, but we wouldn’t advise western visitors to follow suit. In short, just don’t. 

Flashing the flesh

We get it, the weather is hot in the Middle East, and it’s a great place to top up your tan. But even on a public beach, you should avoid bikinis or tight swimming trunks – save those for the private beaches attached to hotels. More generally, ladies should keep their shoulders and knees covered and avoid very tight clothes. As with so many of these rules, some cities are stricter than others, but generally, be guided by how the locals dress.

Gambling

Even in more westernized cities like Dubai and Doha, gambling is strictly prohibited. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t illicit poker rooms and sportsbooks, but don’t be tempted to go near them. Arab countries are well known to have some of the most aggressive gambling laws in the world and flouting them could get you into the sort of trouble that causes a headline-grabbing international incident.  

Drinking alcohol

Most Arab countries have strict rules that prohibit the consumption of alcohol in public. That’s not to say that everywhere is completely dry, however, and many western hotels have fully stocked bars. You will also find nightclubs and restaurants that serve alcohol in cities like Dubai. Even here, you should keep it in moderation, as public drunkenness is unacceptable. Finally, if you have hired a car, don’t even have a small beer, as there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving.

Eating and smoking during Ramadan

The holy month of Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection and prayer. Observers fast during the day and only eat after dusk. As a visitor, you should respect the same practices. Some cafes and coffee shops will remain “partially open” to serve non-Muslims, but only for takeaway services to be consumed in private. Note that the same rules apply to smoking. If you arrive in an Arab country in daylight hours during Ramadan and are desperate for a cigarette, avoid lighting up immediately upon leaving the airport building and hold out a little longer to find a secluded spot at your hotel.

Using your left hand

The left hand is considered “unclean” in Arab culture, something that stems from the days before the advent of toilet paper. Shaking hands, eating, handing people things and even holding doors open should only be done with the right hand if you want to avoid offense. 

Shaking hands with women

On the subject of shaking hands, if you are a female visitor, do not be surprised or offended if Arab men shake hands with men in your company but not with you. Likewise, male visitors should only shake hands with a local woman if she initiates the handshake. 

Taking photos of people

It’s understandable that you will want to take photographs of the amazing sights during your visit so you can share them on social media and so on. Be very cautious when doing so, however. Never take photographs of people without their express consent, especially when it comes to women and children. Arab cultures take personal privacy and safety very seriously. 

Swearing 

Even in the western world, it is socially unacceptable to use obscene or offensive language in public, although it is something we all hear from time to time. However, you will not hear vulgarities spoken in the streets in Arab cities, and it is important that you keep your own language under control too. This even applies when you are behind the wheel. You will invariably encounter bad driving, but keep your inner “New York cabbie” reined in and save the bad language for behind closed doors. 

This post was written in collaboration with a third-party and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arab America or its affiliates.

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