We just got back from a 10-day honeymoon in the Middle East, where we visted the United Arab Emirates, Oman and (very briefly) Jordan.
This was my first time traveling to that region of the world, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew Dubai would be like Las Vegas on steroids (just without the gambling and drinking) and the basics of how to conduct ourselves (no inappropriate clothes in public, no PDAs outside of holding hands).
But there were plenty of things that caught me a bit off-guard. If you’ve never been to that area, here are five things you might be surprised to learn. (Apologies in advance for my ignorance if you’re a world traveler who already knows this stuff, but it was new to me.)
1) English was everywhere
It was easier to navigate through the UAE (at least Dubai and Abu Dhabi), Oman and Jordan that it was for us in Europe.
Every single person we met spoke English and all the signs were in both Arabic and English. This made it smoother for us to get around than even in places like Paris or Rome — not only concerning transportation, but ordering food. I was a bit surprised about this, but we were told the primary schools all teach English there and it’s something they grow up with.
I figured surely the cab drivers or waiters at some places might only speak Arabic, but that wasn’t the case. It was easy to communicate.
2) People were super friendly
You would expect people at hotels or working in the tourism industry to be friendly — that’s their job — and they certainly were. Dubai especially is a magnet for tourists. But the locals we encountered were also very warm toward us (and quite frankly, given all the headlines lately, I wasn’t sure how Americans would be received).
A couple quick examples of this:
— In Oman, we were seated near a table of four Omani men who were probably in their 60s or 70s. One of them approached us and asked if we were Americans.
I was thinking, “Uh, this might not be good.” My guard was up a little bit. But I said we were (it was obvious anyway, as it’s hard to blend in there and not be noticed).
The man smiled and said, “Welcome to Oman, we are happy to have you here.”
Huh. Can you imagine that happening in our country? Two foreigners sitting in a restaurant and an American approaches them and says, “Welcome to America” with a smile?
— On New Year’s Eve when we were trying to get out of the area following The Address hotel fire, the roads were closed and we followed some people who hopped over a barricade and started walking through a construction site (road work next to a highway). I realize that probably wasn’t a smart idea, but we didn’t have many options at the time and were trying to reach a Metro station.
As it turned out, it was still an active site despite it being 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve! Construction workers were in there working, which we didn’t realize until we got pretty deep into the road work.
Suddenly, a man in a hard hat flagged us down and motioned for us to stop. I thought, “Uh oh, we just got ourselves in trouble.”
But instead of yelling at us, he extended his hand to shake mine and calmly said, “Where are you trying to go?” I explained there was a big fire, the roads were closed en route to the Metro and we were trying to get out of the area. He gently patted me on the back and guided us toward a side exit from the site, which let us out exactly on the road we needed!
Again, can you imagine that happening if someone walked into a construction site in the U.S.? Things like that, along with people stopping to ask if we needed help when we looked lost, left us very impressed by the people we encountered during our visit. We were never made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome by anyone.
3) Everywhere we went in the UAE was clean
There seemed to be a big emphasis on keeping things clean there — and not just at the hotels and airports.
For example, the vast majority of public restrooms had people in them who were cleaning up after every person. They’d go in the stall after someone came out or clean the sink after someone used it. It wasn’t like the people in airport bathrooms who are trying to get tips for handing you a towel; they were janitor types who hustled to clean up after everyone. That was the case even when we went to a public park — there were people in the restrooms cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.
Also, when we ate at the mall food court or a place like that, people would come get your trays and clean your table as soon as you stood up. On our trip there was always someone mopping a floor, cleaning windows, sweeping, etc.
4) Prayers, religion and Christmas
As you might know, Muslims are called to pray five times a day. And being in a Muslim country, these prayers were broadcasted in the malls and on the streets or any other public place (they’d pause the Nicki Minaj or Drake song for a few minutes to play the prayers).
I’m sure there’s an explanation for this and you’ll have to excuse my ignorance on the topic, but we were surprised that we never saw anyone stop and pray. I thought when the prayers rang out on the loudspeakers, we would see people drop to their knees and start praying. But in malls or restaurants or walking around, people just kept going about their business or eating or talking (even those who were wearing religious dress). There were prayer rooms in the malls and hotels which we’d see people go into at times, but it wasn’t like everything suddenly stopped.
Also, Christmas was everywhere there. Christmas trees, Christmas music, Christmas decorations. This was true for all three countries we visited. People would wish us “Merry Christmas” (again, it was sort of obvious we weren’t from around there). I didn’t expect that, and I didn’t expect they’d still be playing Christmas music (in hotels and malls) when we left on Jan. 4 — longer than they do in the U.S.!
One thing, though: None of the signs said “Christmas.” It said “Festive season” or “Festive period.” Like there wouldn’t be a “Christmas sale” in a store window but a “Festive season sale.”
5) Dress and customs
Some of the areas we visted were so upscale and modern, with so many Western businesses (they had seemingly every chain store and restaurant we have here), we agreed it could be just another fancy area in the United States if we didn’t know any better.
But then you’d see how people were dressed, and that was all out the window. The clothes were the one big difference and a constant reminder of where we were. Women were dressed mostly in abayas (the black cloaks), and about half of them wore veils so you could only see their eyes. The men mostly wore white robes (thobes) with the traditional headscarves.
Tourists could wear normal clothes, but women were supposed to cover up from their shoulders to their knees in public (not counting places like the beach or the hotel pool). This didn’t seem like the kind of thing the police would stop you for, but it was more just offensive to them. My guess is it would be like if someone were at a football game in the U.S. and didn’t take their hat off for the national anthem — that level of offensive. You wouldn’t get arrested for it, but people would think, “How rude.”
It was different for the two mosques we visted (Sarah and other tourist women had to borrow abayas to wear inside), but in public places it was OK as long as the clothes were somewhat conservative.
Anyway, I’m certainly not claiming these things are the same in places like Saudi Arabia. Every country is different and we spent our time in very Western-friendly areas. But at least for the places we visited, it was eye-opening in ways I didn’t expect.