If you’re familiar with world travel, you know that different cultures have different expectations when it comes to etiquette and manners. Some places have more cultural rules than others, and the Middle East is one of those places.
Of course, while it’s best practice to try and always follow local customs, there may still be times where you slip up. Most Arab people won’t say anything if you break an etiquette rule, and a simple apology will usually suffice to move past the mistake.
These local customs may seem strange to you, especially if it’s the first time you’ve been to an Arab country. But you can easily learn the customs you should follow. Here’s your guide to Arab etiquette.
Modesty and Dress
Modesty is important in Arab countries, and the most visible form of modesty is the way you dress. It’s recommended that you follow a traditional Arab dress code while traveling in the Middle East.
While you don’t need to buy and wear all the local clothing, you should follow these general practices:
- Women: Wear long skirts or pants and long-sleeve shirts that cover your chest area and the nape of your neck. Headscarves aren’t required of foreigners, but they can be helpful when avoiding the sun and heat, and to respect the culture.
- Men: Wear long pants and shirts that cover your shoulders. T-shirts are generally fine, but button-down shirts are typically more respectable. If you choose to wear shorts, make sure they reach the knee.
Wearing clothing that covers most of your body seems counter intuitive in such a hot country, but if you’re smart about the clothing you bring, you might be surprised at how cool you stay. Try to bring clothing articles that are loose fitting and light.
Religion and Holy Sites
Arab countries are very religious, and the people are often very open about their religion. This can be a shock for Westerners, who tend to keep religion a private matter. Don’t be surprised if you are quickly asked about your religion.
The majority of Arab people won’t care what your religion is. In fact, if you are Christian or Jewish, many locals will seek discussion about the doctrine and origins shared between their religion and yours.
There are many holy sites in Arabic countries, and you must treat them with utmost respect. If you decide to visit a mosque or other kind of religious site, be aware that women must wear headscarves and men may be required to wear a head covering, as well. You’ll also be expected to remove your shoes and respect the peace, quiet and worshippers.
Eating in the Middle East is quite the different experience than it is in Western countries. More likely than not, you’ll get invited to eat in at least one person’s home while you’re visiting.
While it’s still your right to accept or decline the invitation based on the situation, eating in someone’s home can be an edifying and memorable experience.
If you do accept an invitation, consider these tips:
- Wash your hands and remember that it’s polite to be seen washing your hands before you eat.
- Only use your right hand to eat or accept food.
- Drinking alcohol is permitted but being drunk is often considered socially unacceptable.
- Accept the portions given to you, even if they seem large. Saying “no” too much can be offensive.
When traveling to a new country, it’s a good idea to learn how to say common phrases that you may need to use while traveling. If traveling to the Middle East, Arabic is the language to learn. Visit our Arabic courses pages to learn more about our offerings!