ABU DHABI // Expatriates and visitors to the Emirates need to be more considerate of local cultural sensitivities, and focused educational programmes could go a long way towards preventing problems, experts said.
The use of profanity, public displays of affection and wearing inappropriate clothing are hazards for Western residents, who may not be aware of the consequences of violating local customs.
"The visitors and the expatriates are the ones that are coming here, and they have to understand our culture and its limits," said Fatma al Sayegh, a professor of UAE and Gulf history at United Arab Emirates University. "I have seen this increasing ... there is not enough tolerance."
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Recently, an American who has lived in Abu Dhabi for nearly five years learnt a lesson the hard way. The man, 50, used profanity on the phone and in a text message with du representatives in November and was arrested. An Emirati worker at the telecommunications company filed charges against the man, and he was accused of defamation.
"I learnt a lot about the words you can use in a service situation, even when you're getting bad service," the man said. "Expats would definitely gain from this perspective. I can be angry, but I can't use certain words, even if I'm the one getting bad service."
The American's case was later dismissed, but he was told he could face a 30-day mandatory sentence in jail and a fine.
UAE law states that a person can be jailed for as many as two years or fined as much as Dh20,000 for insulting another individual. Tougher sentences can be ordered when the person insulted is performing a public service or is insulted in the course of their work.
Nasif Kayed, the general manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, said tolerance is a two-way street.
"We have to teach people to learn how to interact with people in a way that makes them comfortable," said Mr Kayed. The centre gives presentations on Emirati and Arab culture, traditions and customs.
"Understanding is about getting to know the other person and taking the time to understand the people you are dealing with," Mr Kayed said. "We're not just dealing with Emirati and Westerners. We have 200 different cultures here."
The British Embassy this year issued a pamphlet, and began offering awareness workshops, that outlined the dos and don'ts of living in the Emirates. While Ms al Sayegh said more such initiatives would ease tensions, she also called on visitors to use common sense.
"People need to learn that if it's not really appropriate in their culture, like using a curse word or dressing with too much skin showing, it is probably not appropriate here, either," she said.
The American who spent a night in jail for cursing said at least one positive came out of the experience: now he knows his limits.
"I did something stupid. Let's save someone else a night in jail," the man said. "Really, it was pretty scary. People should have an awareness of the consequences of something you wouldn't have a second thought about saying in the US, or England or Australia. It was a real big reminder that I'm in their country, and I don't know the rules."
Mr Kayed had simple advice for avoiding pitfalls while travelling to or living in the UAE.
"Have fun in the Emirates and everybody gets along with harmony and compassion," he said.
* With additional reporting by Hassan Hassan