While the picture of the Middle East painted from television news channels involves insecurity, holy wars, and a life that you would not generally wish on anyone, with the possible exception of the certain members of your spouse’s family, travel magazines globally are only too happy to publish articles on dream holidays to the region where you can live in the lap of luxury while sipping champagne on white sandy beaches. So which is it? The breeding ground of terrorism or the new playground for the world’s super rich?
The reality is that to stereotype the entire region into either of these categories is incorrect.
To suggest that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have common practices would be the equivalent of stating that apples and pineapples are the same thing; yes they are both fruit and one may even derive its name from the other, but here ends the commonality.
Within the scope of my knowledge, and because this is meant to be an article and not an encyclopedia, I shall limit my commentary to three key issues that a relocating expatriate may find interesting. Housing, immigration and education you might think; no let’s talk alcohol, religion and romance.
I will use 5 cities, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait and Riyadh as reference points because these generally speaking provide a broad view from the liberal to the traditional and are the largest relocation centers in the region.
So let’s start with the more sociable aspects of life in the Gulf, and talk about where to get a drink.
Well first stop should definitely be Dubai. With a plethora of bars, restaurants and nightclubs spilling out of its constant stream of new hotels, this city seems to party on steroids. Well that is until you get behind the wheel having had an after work pint and find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Zero tolerance on drinking and driving is strictly observed and the penalties are severe. Alcohol can be imported and the generous allowance is 4 liters per arriving passenger which may be purchased from the port of embarkation or at the arrivals shop at Dubai Duty Free. Once a resident of the city you will need to apply for a liquor license and this will allow you to purchase alcohol locally and keep this at home. This can only be done as a non Muslim. All sounds easy, well it is. The only real drawback to drinking in Dubai is the large markups and duties which can lead to a serious dent in your wallet. Abu Dhabi has similar laws in reference to the importation of alcohol, and while there are not quite as many bars in the Capital of the UAE as there are in Dubai, you will not go thirsty in this town. An interesting statistic is that more champagne gets consumed at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix than any other event globally. I guess drinking and driving is acceptable in some circumstances.
Doha offers availability of alcohol in 4 & 5 star hotels and through specialist alcohol stores. As an arriving passenger, it is strictly forbidden to import alcohol, but you are free to purchase on your way out. Qatar has been quite closely linked to sport and will be the official hosts of the 2022 Football World cup. They have followed a very strict policy with regard to serving of alcohol during events to date, but this is rumored to change as the country reinvents itself in anticipation of this major event.
Kuwait holds some challenges, unless you are a member of the diplomatic corps. Alcohol is only officially available within the embassy bars to which you have to be invited. Importation is illegal, and while a parallel market may exist the cost of a ticket to Dubai may well be cheaper than a night in with a quiet drink.
Riyadh and Saudi Arabia in general, have a very simple policy to alcohol. It is forbidden. Having said that we all know that during Prohibition there were some excellent home brews created. If you have the right friend in the right embassy (the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh has a few bars) there is always the chance of a loophole in the law. I know that I have woken up with some real hangovers in the Kingdom which were not caused by the desert air alone.
As we can see this is a land of extremes, so let’s move across the spectrum to religion. In case anyone out there has not figured it out, the region is highly prone toward Islam and as such if you are of the Muslim faith you will definitely fit right in, but what if you are not?
Well in Dubai & Abu Dhabi you will have no challenges what so ever and will find that acceptance to religions other then Islam is high. Hindu temples and Christian churches are numerous and if you look hard enough you will even find a synagogue.
Kuwait sits one rung down, where there is a tolerance toward other religions, and places of worship legally exist, but these will be in limited numbers.
Doha until 5 years ago did not recognize religions other then Islam, but the need to attract global labor and a strong underground movement where meetings would take place in secret, led to a general acceptance. While still relatively limited, today places of worship are public and festivals are openly celebrated. A small caveat however is to remember that things change quickly in this country and what is the norm one day could be quite different the next.
Riyadh sits at the extreme again, and while there are estimates that over 1 million Christians live in the Kingdom (primarily Third Country Nationals) there is no recognition of any religion other then Islam (the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina are both in the Kingdom) and prayer meetings must take place in secret, generally in homes. Items and articles belonging to religions other than Islam are prohibited. These include Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings and items with religious symbols.
The Saudi Arabian Mutaween or Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (i.e. the religious police) prohibits the practice of any religion other than Islam. Public worship of non-Islamic religions is forbidden and people of all denominations have been subjected to persecution for public preaching.
The reality however is that regardless of which end of the spectrum these countries sit on in terms of their tolerance levels, they are all far from secular in their views. This is most noticeable during the holy month of Ramadan, when you are expected to adhere to the practiced code of not eating in public during daylight hours regardless of religion. While the enforcement of this expectation may vary from country to country, it still stands to reason that when in Rome………….
Finally let’s look at the practicalities of finding romance in the region. While many will arrive family in tow and thus be looking to settle into a society where the proverbial values of strong home life are all important, there will be a fair number who arrive single and as nature intended, be out and about looking for love.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha all have strong expatriate communities where there is open interaction between women and men. Though cultural barriers usually restrict expatriates to not mix with the indigenous populations, this is not unheard of. However it should be noted that despite what may seem like a relatively liberal attitude towards western values, you are in a traditionally Islamic society and as such respect towards the culture should be shown. As a general rule, public displays of affection should be avoided. That having been said, the social side of these cities tends to be as sophisticated as anything in the west, and activities varying from speed dating to singles nights at the nightclubs and bars are well publicized.
Kuwait tends to veer more toward the traditional side, and while social interaction is quite open at most levels, it should be remembered that it is a conservative society where religious values take precedence. You are more likely to meet other singletons as introductions through friends and in groups then at singles night in a local coffee house.
In Riyadh there are two degrees of life. What happens inside the compound you live in and what happens outside. The social life within compounds generally reflects life in the West where women are not veiled or covered and interactions are open. Outside of compounds and private residences a highly conservative approach should be exercised in public. One thing to bear in mind though, with women not being able to sit in cars with men who are not family members, picking up your date might be a bit of a challenge.
To any of you thinking that the above is a rule book on how things work in the Middle East, it is not. Its intention is to give you some guidance into how the cities conduct themselves and what to expect.
That having been said, I have definitely had a drink and woken up with a hangover in each of these cities, had to ask God for blessings in all of these places, and since I arrived in the Middle East single, met and married my wife there, I can attest to the fact that it’s all possible in this part of the world.