Ask Ali: Coffee, tea and trust

When invited by an Emirati for coffee, one should accept graciously.

Powered by automated translation

Dear Ali: I read a survey in 999 magazine recently that said many expats find it hard to know more about the country and culture - do we need more cultural centres? Do you think expatriates are making enough effort to understand the history and culture of the UAE? LB, Abu Dhabi

Dear LB: All people are different and I know and have met many expats who blend into our society. On the other hand, I also know those who simply ignore that they are in an Arabic Muslim country. It's not up to me to judge. Knowledge is something one cannot take as pills, drops or injections. Knowledge is something a bit more difficult to gain, it needs a bit of effort. Starting with accepting the differences and, most importantly, appreciating the similarities.

What we as Emiratis can do a bit more is make more offers to expats to learn about the UAE and our culture and heritage. If we come up with more attractive and inviting programmes, I am sure more and more people will accept this invitation to get to know us and our culture better. And we definitely need more cultural centres. I still couldn't find one centre in the country that offers programmes that engage expats into our culture far away from the typical programmes that we already know of.

However, there are some sources out there: the Ask Ali portal has so much in it! And there are other ways to get information, too - in fact, you're reading one of them right now. And for more than just camels and desert, there are places that teach the Arabic language and even galleries that display art from Emirati artists.

But the bigger issue is we need to make people aware that it would be cool to learn more and raise the interest of visitors to our country. We need to engage the expat communities in the UAE to be more interested in our way of life, our way of communicating, our way of having fun, our way of shopping and so on; the more we get people engaged in our culture the better the chances for them to appreciate it and respect it.

Dear Ali: I heard that drinking coffee when I am offered one will help my business relations. What happens if I refuse to drink it simply because I am not a coffee drinker? GD, Amsterdam

Dear GD: This is a very good question. Sharing food or beverage with an Arab business man or even a colleague or friend is always essential to build up the hospitality element between both parties which all leads to trusting each other more.

Unfortunately, many business deals between Emiratis and expats fail to succeed not because of the content but because of how the tradition of coming together becomes implemented. By refusing the coffee altogether, intended or not intended, this could be just the same as refusing to communicate with us and a sign of disrespect.

However, if you really, really don't like coffee, you can simply ask for something different: maybe some tea, or fresh juices or even water.

In our culture, drinking it is a way to show that you accept the other person with their cultural values, beliefs and traditions that are not necessarily the same as your own. When both business partners share coffee or tea and exchange ideas on an equal level, it symbolises mutual trust, respect, acceptance and hospitality.

But for the sake of simply trying I would also recommend you to drink at least one cupful and to drink it as politely as possible, even if you do not like coffee.Here's a tip: dates or sweets will sugar the taste of the coffee to cut the bitterness a bit.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.