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Culture of United Arab Emirates

Most Emiratis are Sunni Muslims subscribing to the Maliki or Hanbali schools of Islamic law. Many of the latter are Wahhabis, though UAE Wahhabis are not nearly as strict and puritanical as the Saudi variety; the UAE is probably the most liberal country in the Gulf but it is still very conservative by Western standards. There are also smaller communities of Ibadi and Shiite muslims. The oddest thing about the UAE's population is that only 500,000 of the 2 million people living in the country are UAE citizens; the rest are expatriates from other Gulf countries, and from Pakistan, Iran and India.

Arabic is the official language but English is widely understood. In Dubai, you can also get by practicing your Farsi, the Persian language spoken in Iran. Urdu is spoken by the large number of Pakistani expatriates living in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The UAE's cuisine is the staple Middle Eastern fare of full (paste made from fava beans, garlic and lemon), felafel (deep fried balls of chickpea paste served in a piece of Arabic flat bread), Houmos or Hammus (cooked chickpea paste served with garlic and lemon) and shwarma (usually lamb or chicken served on a flat bread or pita). The standard range of non-alcoholic drinks are widely available; alcohol is only sold in restaurants and bars attached to three-star hotels or better and prices are pretty outrageous. Alcohol is not sold at all in Sharjah.

Although relatively tolerant and relaxed, Dubai's culture is firmly rooted in Islam. Most Emiratis are Sunni Muslims, and many belong to the strict Wahhabi sect (or more politely, muwahidin), though they are generally much less puritanical than the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.

Only about a quarter of Dubai's population is Emirati; expats come from all over the world and large communities of Iranians, Brits, Pakistanis, Indians and Philippines call the city home. Arabic is the official language, but English is the language of business. Urdu, Farsi and Malayalam are also useful. Although there's little in the way of a national cuisine in the UAE - the Bedouin diet catered more to sustenance than to decadence - the city's tradition of trade and long-standing commitment to multiculturalism has nurtured a centuries-old love of international edibles.

If you attend any of Dubai's festivals, you may be lucky enough to see traditional dances like the fast-paced liwa or the Bedouin ayyalah performed. Most Bedouin crafts are practical as well as beautiful: Pots like the birnah and hibb are designed to keep milk cool, while the mehaffa, or hand fan, does the same for you. The barjeel, a windtower and attractive architectural element, directs the smallest breeze into the house; it's surprisingly effective air conditioning.

Almost all Emiratis wear traditional dress. Men don the 'I-don't-know-how-they-keep-it-so-clean' ankle-length white dishdasha, topped with a white head cloth (gutra) secured by a black coil (agal). Women slip into a long, black cloak (abaya), and sometimes a black head cloth (shayla) and/or a stiff, gold-colored mask (burqa) to cover their faces. Underneath, they wear whatever they want.

As in any Islamic country, it's important to respect local customs. Visitors, particularly women, do well to dress modestly. It's impolite to photograph people without asking permission first. Men should refrain from shaking hands with women unless the woman puts her hand out first, and women may find that some men won't want to shake theirs; strict Muslims may avoid touching women outside their families. That said, the people of Dubai are used to foreigners' faux pas, and if it's obvious you're trying your best you're unlikely to offend anyone.

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