Ask Ali: Freedom can be influenced by cultural values and how to run a business through social media

In this week's Ask Ali we learn about how Emiratis perceive the word "freedom" and whether it's possible to successfully start a business through social media in the UAE.

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Dear Ali: How do Emiratis perceive the word "freedom"? Does it carry the same meaning as it does for the Europeans? AK, Denmark

Dear AK: In the western mentality, "freedom" is understood to mean the ability to do whatever you want without limits, but in many countries, this is ruled by what is allowed by law. For most Arabs, especially in the Gulf, freedom is about being able to do anything that doesn't go against the values of our culture or religion, or interfere in the privacy of others – let's call it social codes. They're not necessarily written down, but often reflected in the laws.

Our culture determines certain etiquette that relates to almost all aspects of daily life, and breaking it can be dramatic. For instance, taking pictures of people to publish online without their approval or filming two people fighting in the street then publishing it on the internet isn’t allowed here and will be punished. A video like this can compromise and destroy the reputation of those involved. Reputation is a major thing for Arabs when it comes to public behaviour.

Another example is showing a middle finger to others. This isn’t accepted here, nor are expletives. Even if they are done or said in jest, they can hurt the feelings of others. Our culture teaches us to respect each other.

I believe the concept of freedom varies from culture to culture. It all goes back to what we perceive to be the real meaning of freedom. In most Arab countries, we believe that we have a great deal of freedom, and that’s why we attract more than eight million expats to the UAE, all of whom practise their own religions and hold cultural events, and none of us have a problem with it.

Dear Ali: I have noticed that many people here run businesses solely through Instagram accounts. Because my wife is very good at cooking cakes and brownies, we will open an online homemade cakes shop. Do you think we can make a successful business through social media? And how will it be received culturally? SJ, Dubai

Dear SJ: You're absolutely right, Instagram is a great platform for starting a business for a young entrepreneur, but remember that in the UAE all businesses must be registered legally.

Social media can definitely promote your home business, and there’s nothing to worry about from a cultural point of view, so long as your business isn’t promoting anything illegally. However, you should keep in mind that there are strict requirements by law, especially where food is involved.

I would advise you to go to the Department of Economic Development to find out what those requirements are. Hence, you will be protected by the law, and will avoid any problems in the future. Next, when you open a social-media account, start marketing your business in your own language or English, so that different nationalities living in the UAE can become your clients. And if you want Arab clients, publish this information in Arabic as well. For the latter, make sure you have an Arabic-speaking person who can handle such a task.

There are thousands of businesses offering their products via social media, and some have taken it to the next level by opening a store, while others still simply run it via social media. It’s the reality of the power of social media. Good luck.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question.