x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

'When in Rome', a road map for visitors would be useful

Far too often, expatriates arrive in the UAE, merge quickly into their own communities, and carry on living and behaving as they did at home.

Every now and then, wandering around a shopping mall or having a conversation with newly arrived expatriates, I am amazed by the apparent ignorance about the UAE, its culture, traditions, lifestyle and history.

It may be something as simple as inappropriate dress - displayed by men, as well as women. Or it could be the long-outdated preconception that the UAE, before oil production began, had little in the way of history and culture. Alternatively, it might be someone bemoaning the fact that "it's so difficult to meet Emiratis", or that "Emiratis don't work hard".

Often repeated, such broad generalisations are never going to be accurate, just as it wouldn't be true to say that all Britons are beer-guzzling football hooligans or that all French people eat frog legs.

The statement that "ignorance is bliss" always seems off the mark, but in this case ignorance causes all sorts of problems. Issues occur in the workplace, where unintended but inappropriate behaviour can give offence, and in the social environment. Most of us will remember a case or two involving expatriates getting in trouble for a passionate clinch on the beach, for instance.

Although such behaviour can be irritating, to some extent the blame doesn't rest purely with the individuals concerned. Far too often, expatriates arrive in the UAE, merge quickly into their own communities, and carry on living and behaving as they did at home.

Yes, they should have some common sense and remember: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." But employers should also recognise that they have a responsibility to educate their employees, and their families, about the Dos and Don'ts of living here.

Last week, I was invited to talk about the UAE to employees of a large foreign contracting firm that has just won a major contract in Abu Dhabi. The company is beginning to recruit its staff, some from the local market and many from overseas, including people who have never lived in a Muslim country before.

The talk was an introduction to the UAE's heritage and environment, which then focused on the way of life, both in the workplace and in society in general, offering a few tips on how to behave. It was all fairly simple stuff for people who have lived here for a while, but of some value, I hope, to people who are new to the UAE.

A number of the larger companies in the UAE, whether locally owned or branches of foreign firms, provide induction programmes, which are often useful for employees. An elementary knowledge of basic business courtesies or of how to behave during Ramadan, for instance, can be beneficial.

Companies and employees benefit if people are aware of the "red lines" about behaviour and what may give offence. It can often be quite difficult for new arrivals to adjust to life in the UAE. The breadwinner, preoccupied with work, may quickly adapt but families can have a more difficult time. Any effective human resources department knows that people perform better at work if their family lives are comfortable.

Among the messages I conveyed last week was one very simple point: the UAE is a tolerant society, accepting people of different nationalities, cultures, traditions and faiths. Provided there is mutual respect, and expatriate behaviour does not cause offence, then that tolerance wins the day.

I encourage employers to provide foreign employees with basic information to help them to live here happily and safely. And Emirati employees certainly have a great deal of advice to offer.

There may be scope for government agencies to offer guidance as well. In the UAE, it's the Emiratis who are the "Romans" - perhaps they should play a more active role in teaching expatriates what is expected of them.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture