Ask Ali: Expatriates dress code and history of the abra

Why conservative dress is appreciated and the history of the traditional wooden boat.

Dear Ali: I’ve read a lot about the dress code in the UAE, and there seems to be a gap in understanding between Emiratis and expats that causes confusion. I want to make more Emirati friends, but it seems the dress code can sometimes be an issue that prevents that from happening. J?L, Al Ain

Dear J?L: You make a statement as much as ask a question, but let me simply share some of my views. The Arab world prides itself on being tolerant and liberal about certain issues. The Gulf countries have seen the expatriate population grow to the point where expats have become the majority in our country.
However, many people seem to forget that this an Islamic country and that conservative behaviour is sometimes required because of cultural sensitivities.
It is sometimes surprising to hear about people who go to the mall dressed in beachwear, for example. It is important for people to know how to dress appropriately, for the right occasion, so as to not offend anyone and save themselves the embarrassment of being stared at, or even being asked to leave by security.
We ask people to abide by a dress code that is appropriate for the place and the event. If you want to wear shorts and flip-flops, fine, but only at the beach. If you want to wear a mini-skirt, that's also fine, as long as you're going to a nightclub or a cocktail party – which usually happen to be at hotels.
I remember my sister's friend visited from the West. Her friend showed up in shorts and a low-cut top. She did not realise that she was going to meet Emiratis.
My sister did not take offence, but instead took her to the car and they sat there chatting for a long time, because she could not introduce her to the family dressed like that. Whenever my sister talks about this incident she is asked why she didn't take her to meet the family. She replies: "If I did I would have been obliged to introduce her to my mother, and my mother would have had a heart attack if she knew this girl was walking in the neighbourhood dressed like that before she entered our home!"
You see, dressing modestly increases the chance of a Muslim individual and Emirati families accepting your friendship.

Dear Ali: What is an abra? S??C, Lebanon

Dear S??C: What a short question! Anyway, it's about the quality, not the quantity, right?
An abra is a traditional wooden boat used in the UAE to transport people across Dubai Creek or other bodies of water. It is a medium-sized, single-engine craft that holds about 20 people. The driver sits in the centre of the boat, and passengers sit facing out, circling the driver – if he's nice, he might be up for chit-chat.
The abra was once the primary means of transportation between the two sides of the Creek, but as time went by people switched to driving in cars over the new bridges. But abras are still an important mode of transportation – the journey across the Creek takes only 10 minutes, which beats bridge traffic any day.
Hopping on an abra is also a unique way to see the city, especially in the cooler months. While at least 15,000 people use abras daily to cross the Creek, the boats can also be hired for around Dh60 an hour for a private cruise. The best part is that they are open-air, unlike other tour boats, so you'll feel the breeze on your face. Language lesson

Language lesson

Arabic: Khateer
English: "Dangerous", or "Wow"

Khateer means dangerous, but depending on the context, it can also be a slang word meaning “awesome”. So when your best friend gets the latest version of a PlayStation game that no one has been able to get, you can say: “Ya khateer, you’re the man!”, or “You’re awesome!” Another example: “The goalkeeper for Al Wahda Football Club is khateer, he stopped several goals and was really great!

Ali Alsaloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from Abu Dhabi who has lived all over the world. For more of his advice, see his show on or visit Ali’s new book, Ask Ali: A Guide To Abu Dhabi, is available from, priced at Dh50.