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Cultural Differences in the Middle East

By: Elizabeth Mugan BA/BSc, PGDipLaw, BVC, CIArb - Updated: 1 Apr 2010 |
Emigrate Immigration Middle East Muslim

If you are travelling to the Middle East to emigrate or even for a holiday or business, it is important to adhere to the local culture, traditions and laws. In Western society, life is far more relaxed and not much can surprise us. In the Middle East however, the same behaviours, can be frowned upon, or at worst, result in you breaking the law.

Laws, Religion and Culture

There are many different laws applicable to the Middle East that you would never encounter in the UK. In some countries such as Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to drink alcohol and there are strict penalties for disobeying the law. It can be illegal to kiss or hold hands in the street in general, or just if you are not married. In as many as ten Middle Eastern countries it is illegal for homosexuals and in some countries even speaking to a Muslim female is forbidden. It is important that you read about the law before you leave to ensure you don’t end up in trouble.

It is also important to note the area of the country you are in. Some behaviours are just frowned upon rather than illegal. The laws and customs are much stricter in rural areas than the cities or more tourist-populated areas, where travellers are expected.Among certain religious obligations, Muslims must pray five times a day, the exact times of which are listed in the local newspaper each day. Everything is closed on a Friday (with the exception of tourist areas) as it is the Muslim holy day. Many companies also closed on Thursday, making Thursday and Friday the weekend.

Before You Go

Before you go on holiday it’s a good idea to read a guide book to find out about local laws, culture and religion. You can find one in your local library or any good book store, or even use the internet. Although many people in the Middle East speak basic English, it’s also recommended that you get a phrase book so that you can avoid any potential language barriers. It will also help you to haggle, particularly when using their local taxi service.

In Your Resort

If you are staying in a hotel or accommodation, you’ll find that the staff are very pleasant and courteous to all guests and are excited to have people from different countries stay with them. You can however, head to resorts with other immigrants. In Saudi Arabia for example, there is a westernised resort for all the American and European workers. You would then only have to adhere to the laws and culture of the country once out of that resort. You must respect that you are in a Muslim country and remember this, for example, when bathing. Topless bathing is forbidden. Make sure you familiarise yourself with these rules when you arrive.

Places of Cultural Significance

These are places where the utmost respect for the Muslim religion is required. You are likely to encounter such places when on day trips out to cultural sites or to local towns and markets. Women must wear clothes which cover their upper arms, collarbone and stomach, such as a tee-shirt and clothes that cover the knee. It is a common myth that women must wear headscarves, but you are advised to wear one if mixing with the locals.

You must also bear in mind where you are when taking photographs as in some religious places it is forbidden and you should always ask before taking a person’s picture before doing so as it can sometimes cause great offence, particularly if taking the photograph of a Muslim woman.


Haggling is a normal practice in the Middle East and you are encouraged to do so as the locals have no fixed prices for items. You should try and haggle about a third off the asking price but do keep in mind that you may be trying to haggle a few pence, which in reality could mean a significant amount of income to them.

You are also likely to encounter quite a lot of attention from shopkeepers trying to sell you something. This can be quite flattering at first but it becomes quite tiresome after a couple of days. If they ask you to look at something or do something which you do not want to do, a simple “no, thank you” and walking on normally does the trick. If you are female travellers, you may receive unwanted attention. Most are just being friendly but they will treat you differently to their own Muslim women and you should always err on the side of caution.

For more information on a specific country, see the FCO country guidance.

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