When and when not to use the term habibi: 15 ways to greet people in the UAE

The Arabic language is full of terms of endearments, but the key is in knowing when and how to use them

UAE social life is full of terms of endearment. Getty Images
UAE social life is full of terms of endearment. Getty Images

As a long-term resident of Abu Dhabi, it only took me a few months to recognise that terms of endearment are frequently used here in both personal and professional circles.

Whether it’s during a catch-up over dinner or a breakfast business meeting, affectionate monikers are exchanged between friends and colleagues in a way that wouldn’t perhaps be appropriate in western countries.

I found this out the hard way on my last trip back to Australia, where I grew up, when during a dinner with “the boys" I began a discussion with “my dear Murad”. Murad was totally weirded out.

That said, even in the more relaxed social spheres of the region there are rules of engagement.

For example, you can’t be dropping the H bomb (habibi or habibti) in the first sitting. Also, in an Arab society where seniority is respected, there are a few honorifics you can use to gain the appreciation and kudos of your elders.

Here are 15 terms to use to widen your UAE phrasebook:

1. Akhy and Ukhty

Meaning "my brother" and "my sister" respectively, this descriptor is bigger than family. With friendship a premium in the Arab world, don’t be surprised if you are graduated by your mate to "akhy" and "ukhty" status in no time. Both terms also carry weight spiritually, with Muslims encouraged to call fellow adherents brother or sister.

2. Aamu and Ammati (Aa-mu and Am-ma-ti:)

These mean uncle or auntie, and are to be used with people you're familiar with. Those roughly 20 years above your age qualify for a’amu or a'mati status. Anyone more advanced in age should be referred to as jaddu or jaddati, which mean grandfather and grandmother respectively.

3. Bash Muhandis (Bash mu-han-dis)

An old and charming handle from Egypt, mostly used for males, which dates back to the country’s former Ottoman rule. Bash is short for “basha”, a term used by the Turks for those of a high rank, while muhandis is an Arabic word which means engineer. Bash muhandis was initially used to address qualified engineers and architects – now it is used for anyone who is handy with a screwdriver.

4. Boss

A term of respect used to those often performing a service, whether labour-intensive or in the hospitality industry. For example, you would perhaps call the attendant filling your gas tank or the waiter "boss".

5. Duktoor (male) and duktoora (female)

You don’t have to be a medical professional to be a doctor in the Arab world. With a high regard for education instilled in the culture, this designator is also used to honour those who have completed a PhD. The title immediately bestows a level of respect reserved for society’s intelligentsia.

6. Hajji (male) and hajja (female)

A term of respect used for those who have completed the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj. Once they return from their journey, it is customary to call them hajji or hajja followed by their first name. For example, Hajji Ahmed or Hajja Fatima. You can eventually resort to normal first-name basis, but for the first few weeks stick to the term. The person just completed one of the most important and gruelling tasks of their faith, so they deserve to be respected.

7. Ya Omri

While its literal meaning is “my life”, it serves the same function as “Oh sweetie” or “Oh, honey”. It is no wonder this term is used in Arabic soap operas in either romantic exchanges or scenes when a partner begs for forgiveness.

8. Habibi (male) and habibti (female)

Both mean darling, and can be used with friends and good colleagues. It is one of the most widely used terms of endearments in the region, and chances are they are the first Arabic words learned by a new arrival. But don’t drop it too casually. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean intimacy and there is still a code of respect to adhere to. Don’t call your manager or professional acquaintance habibi or habibti, unless you are certain of the quality of your relationship.

9. Ya Sahby and Ya Sahbety

This is a polite and slightly quaint way of saying “my friend” for men and women respectively. Sensible and evergreen, this can be used in most social settings, however it is recommended to use with those in your age group.

10. My dear

The title sounds rather archaic and too heavy for a chilled conversation. Hence, it is a good idea to be conservative in its usage. It is to be deployed on a case-by-case basis and only to those who address you using that term first.

11. Ya Mualem

The Arabic version of the hip-hop term “OG”. A casual and cool way to say teacher (note: it is all in the delivery), a “mualem” is that grizzly dude who has his own reserved table and holds court at his local coffee shop. A younger cat can also earn the title for either a perceived wisdom or being the absolute best at what he does.

12, Ustadhi (male) and Ustadhati (female)

Translated as "my teacher", ustadhi or ustadhati is a Gulf honorific widely used to address senior citizens. You can either use it singularly, or add on to the person’s first name. For example, "Shukran ustadhi/ustadhati" or "Ustadi Ahmed/ustadhati Fatima”.

13. Ya albi or ya roohi

While habibi/habibti are typically pan-Arab terms, ya albi or ya roohi are mostly used by those hailing from the Levant. But once again, with ya albi meaning "my heart" and ya roohi "my soul", they should only be used with close friends and associates.

14. Ya rayal (ya ray-yal)

An Emirati term frequently used in conversations between males. Translating to "oh man", it is often heard in friendly banter or as a term of exasperation during arguments.

15. Ya Ragel

This is the regional version of "Ya rayal". Commonly heard during that boisterous late-night card game in the coffee shop, it is best to keep its usage among friends and away from the office environment.

Updated: May 3, 2021 03:07 PM

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