Lessons in cultural misunderstandings from the Gulf

Are we more a melting pot or a basket-case of cultural groups? (picture source: http://kidspartyheaven.wordpress.com)


The Arabian Gulf is often called a melting pot of cultures, where diverse groups and nationalities meet, work and live together and understand one another. Every now and then, there are moments when a different reality comes to light, when it’s blindingly obvious that we still have a long way to go.

I had the pleasure of having two of those ‘cultural moments’ last Wednesday. The first was with Emirates, the national airline of Dubai. Emirates is an interesting organization, in that it’s one of the most profitable airlines in the world, is owned by the Government of Dubai, and yet most of its senior management is not from the Gulf region.

I enjoy flying Emirates, and I often receive a great service from the airline. I had to rebook both my and my wife’s ticket and pay for the difference over the phone. All went smoothly, until it came to the issue of payment. You see, the habit in the most of the Arab world, and particularly in the Gulf, is for the wife not to take her husband’s name for religious reasons. And yet, I couldn’t pay for her ticket over the phone because my surname obviously is different. The lady on the other end of the phone wasn’t an Arab, but she wasn’t the person who drew up the rules at an airline owned by an Arab government.

Cultural misunderstanding one was resolved not through explaining why my and my wife’s names were different – I did try my best – but for other reasons (I’m a Skywards airline rewards member, which solves everything over the phone). The second cultural crossed-wires was much more fun and less painful but just as much an eye-opener.

I received a message from a friend asking for information about a company I know. Here I was naively thinking he was looking for a job. Instead, he’d been asked by a parent to check up on a person at the company whom a family member had received a proposal of marriage from.

While I’m never averse to providing a job reference or to help someone in their search for the right role, I explained that I may have to draw the line on background checking someone I didn’t know to help facilitate (or not) a marriage request.

We often talk about melting pots, about coming together and living alongside others in harmony et cetera. But how much do we really know about the other? And how often does our lack of cultural awareness catch us out? With Ramadan only a few days away maybe it’s time we did more to understand each other and our diverse backgrounds?

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