x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Voyage of discovery among navies

Lieutenant Commander Shah is one of two cultural advisers to Muslim nations in the UK's navy.

As part of his job as a cultural liaison officer on HMS Albion, Lieutenant Commander Shah is responsible for introducing the crew to Arab and Muslim customs.
As part of his job as a cultural liaison officer on HMS Albion, Lieutenant Commander Shah is responsible for introducing the crew to Arab and Muslim customs.

ABU DHABI // "Assalamu Alaykum," says the British naval officer as he passes up a companionway on HMS Albion. A nearby officer of the UAE Navy returns the greeting.

Lieutenant Commander Shah - he withholds his full name for security reasons - is a British citizen who has worked with the Royal Navy for 22 years as a reservist.

He has been in the UAE for a week of joint naval exercises between the Emirates and the UK that end today.

His role as one of the Royal Navy's two cultural advisers to Muslim nations was created only last month.

"They picked me out because of my background, knowledge of the region, the language, religion, customs and cultures as a Muslim," he says. He speaks English, Arabic and Farsi.

"The [UK] navy and armed forces have come to realise that in order to get closer to our friends, we need to integrate with them better during the exercises and meetings and get to know each other."

The problem, he says, is that the Royal Navy does not understand Muslims or Arabs. "They don't. That's the thing. It's one of the things we missed out on over the years."

That lack of understanding forms a barrier to close military relationships, which are often built on trust in the thick of combat.

"If you're doing exercises with the Omanis and the UAE forces or any other Arab nation it's all right - but there's something missing and that's the cultural getting together aspect.

"And it works both ways - us getting to know your culture here, and your guys getting to know our habits, customs and cultures here when they come and live on board the ship."

Beginning to understand the region's culture, habits and etiquette or "adab" - including food - is a prerequisite to closer military engagement, he says. "It's how to behave and appreciate the culture of the personnel."

The work he does, he says, is "something we just need to accept - that culturally we need to be aware of what's happening around us, how people live, how they interact and work with others and the religious side of it as well".

For example, the British ships' arrival in the UAE coincided with the commemoration of Israa and miraj, the ascension of the Prophet Mohammed.

"I have to tell them what it's all about."

With 400 people on board, that is no small undertaking.

"We've got a big officers' mess down below so we give a full presentation about Islam, about the culture, the country, how things work. There's also a big list of dos and don't."

That list includes items like shaking hands with the right hand, not showing the soles of your feet, and not taking photographs of women, as well as dressing modestly in places of worship.

He also teaches the crew a few phrases in Arabic.

"I don't want to change British culture - it's simply just how to respect the culture of those while here.

"We tell them how to be careful about their behaviour, and show respect as to local customs."

In Europe or the UK, "when you talk about Muslims, there's a lot of negative publicity and bad news coming from Muslim countries", he said.

"When they come and do the exercises here, they see the other side. So I'll be taking them to a mosque, to shopping centres, souqs, to show them that Arab countries are not just deserts - to look and learn."

Lt Com Shah says he is treated well within the force and has not suffered any sort of discrimination, despite being the only Muslim on board the fleet visiting the Gulf.

"I stand as an officer with many years of experience - and have been very well respected by the hierarchy from the lower deck up and other hands."

The interaction between the Royal Navy and their Gulf counterparts has been a success.

"They get on very well, so far. We've had interactions with the Saudis and Omanis - and here as well there have been absolutely no problems.

"When the Saudis came and found out that I was Muslim and that my being here was purposefully for this mission by the UK Ministry of Defence, to change our way of thinking and our behaviour towards our Muslim friends, they became very friendly with me, and they appreciated my work as well."