Etiquette in the Gulf States


The most generally-used greeting is the handshake. However, the vigorous strong grip handshake admired in the West is not used. Arabs do not in fact « shake » the hand at all but only clasp it for a very brief moment and then release it. Never offer your hand to a lady, unless she offers it to you first. The most generally used greetings formula is the well known « salaam aleikum » (peace be upon you), the reply being « aleikum assalaam » (and on you peace).

Entering Rooms

Any group of people sitting together constitutes a « majlis » or council, whether they are in an office, a room, an airport lounge or on a carpet in the desert. There are some rules to be followed when you approach a group:

First of all, do not rush in. Walk in slowly with dignity.

When you come within greeting distance, you may say « salaam aleikum » in an audible voice to the whole group ; the group will all respond « aleikum salaam ».

As you enter and the group rises, try to make your way to the host. It will usually be made obvious to you who this is. Again, do not hurry and retain an erect posture.

The most senior person will often be on the right (this is also useful for going through doors or in and out of lifts). The most important guests are seated on the right of the host although some will sit on the left forming a group around him.

Do not linger too long talking to the host unless he seems inclined to do so. Then move to your left, i.e. to those sitting on the right of the host, who are the most senior and shake hands with each in turn.

It is important to greet every man in the room. Do not be self-effacing and presume the others are not interested in you.

Look each person in the eye as you greet him. It is alright to smile but do not overdo it.

In a very large majlis such as that of a sheikh or emir, people will not all stand at once as you enter, but the host and those near him will. As you continue round to your left, people will rise to meet you in waves, sitting down after you pass. In such a large majlis you may in fact be ushered to a seat before you have shaken hands with everyone.

You are now part of the majlis and any newcomers will come in and greet you.

Sitting Posture

This is very important. It is unwise to cross one leg over the other with the sole of the foot pointing to one side, as it may be pointing to another guest, which is regarded as very impolite. Even if you see an Arab doing this, you should not imitate him. Neither should you stretch your legs straight in front of you. Generally speaking, one should adopt a compact sitting posture. Make sure you feet are always pointing downwards and the soles of you shoes are never visible.


At an important meeting it is advisable to wear a suit and tie as this shows you have made an effort. The Arab for his part is wearing a formal dress when he wears a robe (thob) and a head scarf (ghutra) with a head rope (agal). He will change this robe at least once a day if not more and will be careful to always appear spotless in public. The same is expected from the visiting person. On very important occasions an Arab will also wear a light cloak called « bisht » and trimmed with gold braid. The body should be fully covered. Shorts, therefore, should never be worn and even short-sleeved shirts and tight-fitting T-shirts are frowned upon. An unbuttoned shirt is regarded as indecent. For women, a « jupe pantalon » is ideal but a long skirt or dress will also do.

Right or Left Hand ?

Only take and give something with your right hand, whether it is a cup of coffee, a letter, a pen or money. Some people will refuse to take anything when offered with the left hand. A traditional Arab meal is eaten with the right hand (without knife and fork). Sometimes glasses of water will be offered during the meal. It is permissible to take these with the left hand as you will be eating with the right.

Welcoming Coffee

The central feature of Arab social life is the taking of coffee. The coffee-server carries the coffee-pot in his left hand and a column of six or so cups in his right, one inside the other. If in a large majlis, the server will head first towards the host, who may take coffee but may indicate the man on his right being the most honoured guest. When the server gets to you, take the cup in your right hand. You do not have to thank him. As the coffee is usually very hot, it cannot be drunk at once. You should swirl it round the cup and sip it thoughtfully. When you have finished, do not put the cup down, but keep hold of it in your right hand. The coffee-server will return to you and take the cup and pour you a second and then a third. When you have had the third, shake the cup as you give it back to him. This signals that you have had enough. This is the general rule but you can have as many cups as you like or you can also refuse the first. It would however be somewhat impolite to refuse the first cup. Coffee is usually followed by sweetened tea.

How to address High Ranking Persons

The rulers in the Gulf should always be addressed as « Your Highness » in first instance although it is allowed to say « Sir » thereafter. Similarly a Ruler should be referred to in a conversation as « His Highness » or « His Highness the Emir ».

A Minister should be addressed initially as « Your Excellency » and subsequently as « Sir ».

Leaving a Gathering

It is not really necessary to shake hands with the host on leaving. Neither is it a good idea to make an appointment for the next day or remind the host of an appointment on leaving. Arrangements for another meeting should be done while sitting down and before leaving.

In some cases the host will see you to the door but this is not considered necessary, unless you are very important or you are going away for a long journey.

Source: « The Simple Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Arabia and the Gulf States » by Bruce Ingham (Ed. Global Books Ltd)