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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Jul 04, 2013

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Abu Dhabi, UAE

One expat who moved to Abu Dhabi, UAE explains that moving to a Middle Eastern country is so different to other European countries. And, he feels that the greatest challenge is understanding how and why things happen in the workplace.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Abu Dhabi

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No formal training. However I was living in Spain for 3 years, which in the south has many similarities in culture because of the Moorish influence so although not prepared, I could understand what was going on

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

No. My employer said I did't need to learn Arabic as translators are provided (some of the time). I went on an Arabic course run by the Brisih Council, however it was social Arabic. Whilst I can understand some conversations, my Arabic is not a great deal of use.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

No

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

The culture shock is in the way work progress is achieved in the public services. Culturally there is little difference to Spain, however the short working days, the reluctance to make any decisions at all, the minor functionaries who prevent progress, are all still surprising to me.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I think I probably did, although at the time I didn't recognise them as such.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Certainly frustration, but none of the others.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The friendliness of the Emirati people. I have been made more welcome in the UAE that in several parts of the UK I have visited.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Moving to a middle eastern country is so different to other European countries, the greatest challenge is understanding how and why things happen in the workplace. One expects differences in food and the day to day shopping, bargaining etc. Working in Government I was and still am to a degree, challenged by the completely different way of internal working when compared to the UK. The language is a barrier, but it is also the unwritten codes of the tribes and families, the office politics etc which pervade every thing, every day.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

I was visiting an office with a young Emirati colleague and was offered the customery Arabic coffee and dates. I had the coffee cup in my right hand, and took a date with my left hand. My young colleague was scolded by the more senior people, in Arabic, that he had not told me how to accept food - which he had indeed not. The correct way would have been to transfer the coffee cup to the left hand and then accept food with the right. The left hand is of course unclean, but early on, I just never thought and used both.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

If you are moving to the Arabian peninsula, look for "27 Articles" by T E Lawrence (whose world are banned in the UAE). Although written for the British Army in 1917, if you strip away the military stuff and look beyond into the culture, the advice he gives for working closely alongside Arabian peninsula people is as valid (for me) in 2013 as when it was written in 1917. It helped me to understand some of the cultural issues.

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