Dubai V Amsterdam- Cultural Differences

Dubai Marina, UAE

Dubai and Amsterdam – the two cities that equally greatly impacted my life. Culturally, socially, politically, spiritually and economically, the two can only be described as chalk and cheese. Thus, it makes the experience all the more interesting to observe and reflect upon my experiences.  

I mentioned Edward T Hall in a previous post regarding his hypothesis on cultural context. His detailed anthropological insights between different cultures (high context and low context) are extremely valuable for navigating through the often complex maze of communication – verbal and non-verbal. Professor Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who undertook detailed academic research to create the ‘6 Dimensions of Culture,’ a model used by many international organisations to create a sustainable model for intercultural relations and organisational structures. There are many aspects of his work that I believe relate to an objective comparison, however I don’t believe everything applies appropriately, particularly the names of the subtitle categories. Therefore, I will use a combination of his theories and my own additions to make this as detailed, yet interesting as possible.

1. Power Distance

Power distance refers to the presence of a hierarchical structure – power is either distributed equally or unequally with absolute acceptance. I think this aspect sets the tone for the daily operations of any society. Power gives an individual agency in their environment.

From the moment I stepped off the airplane in Dubai, it was immediately obvious that power was distributed according to a very firm hierarchical order and accepted without question. The structure made me feel uncomfortable, especially as the ranking usually related to skin colour; the lighter you are, the higher your status. I thought it was a joke when we referred to certain people as a ‘VIP’ (Very Important Person). But it didn’t appear to be a joke when the VIP referred to themselves as a VIP. The model perpetuates a system of racism, as status isn’t rationalised based on merit, but prestige. I experienced numerous occasions whereby I was either less qualified for a position or receiving a salary increase in accordance with the colour of my skin. I truly understood the value of my passport. This system of power was my first real encounter with the obvious injustices in our world. Sadly, you start to become desensitised to the daily discrimination before you. It’s difficult to articulate your objections because as similar to the caste system in India, your place on the hierarchy ladder is already assigned. This is just how it is – accept the cards you are dealt.

Taking any personal initiative is typically frowned upon – the autocratic dominant delegates orders down to the subordinates. There is also a level of comfort in this style of power – you are somewhat less responsible for your actions as an individual, akin to the dynamics of a teacher and a student relationship. Communication is formal – there is absolutely no way you could email your boss without informing your manager beforehand. It would be interpreted as a great insult, sneaky and untrustworthy behaviour. In Dubai people love to insert a prefix before your name – Holly becomes ‘Miss Holly’. This drove me absolutely CRAZY! The formality between colleagues, especially demonstrated by the ‘subordinates’ towards the ‘dominants’. I distinctly remember being so irritated by a close Indian colleague. He kept calling me ‘Miss Holly’, after I asked him countless times to drop the prefix. I always addressed him by his name. We worked on the same team and I saw us both as equals, regardless of skin colour or nationality. He turned around and looked at me, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that Miss Holly.” The simple ‘Miss’ was so innate in his way of communicating and showing respect, it was impossible to rewire. It evidently made him feel very uncomfortable and I had to acknowledge and accept that fact regardless of my irritation.

My first time driving down Sheikh Zayed Road – Dubai. An incredible experience amongst all the skyscrapers.

Amsterdam is the polar opposite for power distance dynamics. There is a flat hierarchy structure, or at least as much as possible because control is discouraged. The bosses sees themselves as one of the employees, which eliminates formalities – titles, proper gestures, etc., Approaching your boss before your direct manager is encouraged and informal chats at lunch or drinks are commonplace. The high degree of equal rights, accessibility and input is highly regarded. The informal communication at times feels ambiguous and confusing. It’s hard to understand where you draw the line between professional and personal. In Amsterdam, my boss would approach each of the employees to serve them an alcoholic drink on a Friday afternoon. I recently found myself working in the service industry, serving three customers. One of the males was particularly warm and appreciative, however the other two were more standoffish and particular with their order, as though I lacked any great intelligence. I obliged, but still I felt like I was being looked down upon. As they were paying I noticed their Dubai bank cards. I proceeded to tell them that I worked there for three years in an office job. The woman’s face immediately changed. We exchanged some brief chat and they suddenly warmed to me.  I was now a human being beyond a server. It’s also interesting to note that they were cabin crew – also belonging to the service industry. But that’s the problem with the hierarchy system of power – the anguish of the top elites keeps moving down the food chain. As they were leaving the woman clearly felt guilty and handed me €5. 

Early morning walk to walk along the Amsterdam canals

2. Individualism V Collectivism

The title is very straightforward – how we view our position in society – as one, or as part of a larger group.

Dubai is a very collective society – there is a ‘We’ mentality rather than an ‘I’. Trust is earned rather than a prerequisite, which means you have to prove yourself. Loyalty is fundamental, similar to a family relationship dynamic. To cause offence to someone in the community brings about great shame, therefore a gentle approach with anything of a sensitive nature is highly appreciated. I really loved working with my colleagues in Dubai. I don’t think I felt any great pangs of homesickness living in this city, as I do in Amsterdam. It’s ironic as I’m geographically closer to home here than I was in the Middle East! But the family mentality between colleagues made you feel at home and they truly cared about your wellbeing. We had daily or weekly meetings that often surpassed their allocated time, but this wasn’t a major issue. We drank coffee and discussed issues that sometimes became personal, but ultimately created deep and authentic connection – human vulnerability. We are colleagues, but we are also human beings.

I think the climate of a country translates to the temperature of the people. The Arab culture is fascinating because on the one hand they understand the human element of a person – we each have complex emotions beneath the surface, yet at the same time, they hate to address the difficulties or taboo topics that arise – especially mental health. One powerful example always comes to mind – I overheard a woman discussing her son’s poor behaviour in a cafe. “He says he feels depressed, but I took him to the doctor. We did an MRI and couldn’t see any depression in the brain. I think it’s an excuse for his misbehaviour and it’s embarrassing the family!” This blew my mind! Mental health is a global epidemic and the need for education and practical treatment is always at the forefront of discussion. The UAE is making advancements in its approach to mental health. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s easier for outsiders with a superiority demeanour to only view the negatives, without acknowledging the growth of a young country.

Amsterdam is one of the most highly individualistic societies I’ve ever experienced. I feel more comfortable in a high context culture, but I simultaneously value my independence. Here, communication is ‘Dutch direct,’ as I like to call it – but I feel like this topic deserves an article in itself. Often people use this as a ‘get out of jail free card’ to be unpleasant with their unconscious thoughts. Trust is intrinsic in the very foundations of society – it’s tangible and exists everywhere. Trust is either lost or further enhanced making it an equal playing ground for everyone from the outset. From a young age, children are encouraged to be independent – such as, riding their bike to school without an adult. I really struggled in my first Dutch company here. There were no genuine connections, just contrived interactions that took place at very specific times and places. I craved the interaction of a physical meeting to connect with my colleagues, but it was only seen as wasting time. You are viewed as an individual at your desk, capable of undertaking tasks virtually, without great human assistance. The robotic concept that goes against everything human beings require – genuine connection. The loosely-knit social framework of individuals taking care of themselves is significant. However, from my own observations, those who emphasise this desire for absolute individuality are the very ones searching for meaning and connection. Romantic relationships are another hot topic of conversation. Hello ‘open relationship’!

Prior to moving to The Netherlands, I hadn’t heard so much of the term ‘open relationship’ but it’s become a reappearing theme. My upbringing surrounding relationships has always been a firm partnership. I personally saw it as potentially stifling and limiting in terms of personal freedoms – the pressure to depend so highly on another. ‘I’ becomes ‘We’ and your identity begins to gradually vanish. The Dutch are entirely different. Similar to the instructions of an emergency landing, you must always secure your own oxygen mask before attending to a loved one. Without cultivating and nurturing your own life, you cannot be physically or emotionally present for another. Many people are very open about their open relationship status. I see this as very brave because this ‘unconventional’ way of living is typically frowned upon in religious societies. Ironically, it would probably be more acceptable to have an affair behind your partner’s back than CHOOSE this life! Freedom is an important concept and I think this is another subject that deserves its own article.

3. Masculinity and Femininity.

Society is driven by primal instincts that exist in the masculine and feminine forms of expression. Each gender inherently possesses different strengths and weaknesses – a yin-yang philosophy with the intention to create harmony.

The United Arab Emirates is rated as neutral according to the 6 dimensions, as mentioned above – equally 50/50 masculine to feminine. I personally disagree with this data. I believe society falls towards a more masculine society and this isn’t entirely related to Islam or women’s rights. Masculine characteristics are demonstrated through competition, achievement and success, which are usually fuelled by economic gain. I mentioned in a YouTube video about dating in Dubai that the dynamic between men and women in the dating realm predominantly exists around status – the man exercises his masculinity by displaying his wealth, especially through material possessions. On the other hand, women are valued for their external beauty and at times are viewed as the trophy to complete a man’s identity. However, the essence of femininity is very much celebrated – empathy, gentleness and sensitivity are more embraced and valued. Whereas in Amsterdam, I feel that playing into the physical feminine energy is frowned upon by other women – as a flaw or a weakness, which contradicts the desire for gender equality by viewing your own gender as inferior. The hectic work schedule of both men and women is prevalent – working 6/7 days per week isn’t unheard of in Dubai. Your work becomes ‘who are you’ rather ‘what you are’ – a capitalistic approach to life whereby profit equates to happiness. Feminine traits include caring for others and a high quality of life is a sign of success. Dubai is obsessed with being the best – the constant strive for a new world record is prevalent, but lacks substance.

Lebanon Island, United Arab Emirates

Amsterdam is a more feminine society – quality of life is a sign of success (education, health, work/life balance, freedom of expression, etc.,) and standing out from the crowd is frowned upon. There is a famous Dutch saying that says ”doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg” – “Just act normal because that’s already crazy enough.” It perfectly sums up Dutch society – often people are dressed similarly and following the natural order is admired. I met a Dutch guy in the park during the summer playing table tennis. His father was Egyptian and his mother Greek – an incredible combination! He was brought up Dutch, but never felt like he fit in. He spent all of his free time travelling abroad to warmer countries, such as Portugal in search of greater depth. There he found himself amongst the chaos of a less functioning society. “Sometimes I feel I need to be part of a rebellion. Everything in Holland is too…functioning. There’s no chaos to strive towards.”

Another interesting observation is the recurring desire to live your passion. There are many people working the 9 to 5 work week, or in the service industry. But most people have a side project that fully encompasses their passion. This changed my whole outlook on life – I didn’t realise I could have a job that integrated my passion. In fact, I faced somewhat of an identity crisis, a potential spiritual awakening, upon moving to Amsterdam – I always identified myself with my work but, I slowly realised that’s WHAT I do and not WHO I am. The Dutch value equality, solidarity and quality in their working lives. When the clock strikes 5PM, everyone is out the door – there are no ‘brownie points’ for overtime of your own freewill. Usually people will pity you because the quality in your work hours should also be practised in your private life – physical health or personal relationships. Many companies are very accommodating with flexi time – it’s not uncommon for women to work 32-36 hours per week, which gives them an extra day to be present for the children. Controversially, the same flexibility isn’t as widespread for men, but I view it as a progressive step. 75% of women work part-time as opposed to 40% of men. In Dubai many children are raised by nannies who find themselves in abusive households and a discriminatory salary that often goes unpaid. If they can’t be emotionally present for themselves, how can they attempt to raise a healthy child? From my own personal experience, a 4-day work week greatly improved my mental health and productivity to explore myself and rediscover my passions.

According to the World Economic Forum, it’s predicted that it will take 99.5 years until income inequality is abolished on a global scale. However, at the recent Global Women’s Forum Dubai 2020, Taline Koranchelian, Middle East and Central Asia Deputy Director of the IMF, stated it would take the region over 150 years, due to its position in the bottom 25 percentile worldwide. Often customary cultural traditions resist change and prevent the evolution of gender dynamic roles in society – steering away from the traditional housewife and working husband mentality. Examining a country through the lens of impartiality is fundamental. Often the western media thrive on a pessimistic narrative to encapsulate the entire GCC region, which I regularly oppose. “Wow, you must have been so oppressed as a woman living in Dubai. I mean you can’t even drive, drink alcohol or show your hair!” Unfortunately, these negative stereotypes with sensationalist anecdotes continue to prevail without fair balance. But of course, amongst the ‘fake news’ there are always good resources with fact driven data to backup certain claims. Yes, you can drive, drink alcohol and show a lot more than just your hair!

Education, financial access, and legal obstructions (inheritance laws and asset ownership in accordance with Sharia Law) are three areas gaining focus. Currently 70% of Emirati women make up the total of university graduates, as opposed to 54% in The Netherlands. From my own observations working in education in the GCC region, many males are expected to follow in their fathers’ business footsteps, whilst females typically enter third level education. In my own university experience, I didn’t find the academic element terribly enriching, but the exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking was invaluable in my emotional development. Challenging traditional roles, stereotypes of men and women and relationship obstacles in the UAE are being welcomed by many. The consequences of external influences, primarily expats and studying abroad, is creating discussion and the possibility for advancement to accommodate tradition and a progressive mindset. However, most people forget that western society achieved greater equality advancements over a longer period of time and the pressure for overnight change is an unattainable goal. I think it’s better to see slow progress rather than regression, which unfortunately appears to be happening in The Netherlands. 

Zandvoort Aan Zee – 20 minutes West by train from Amsterdam

4. Uncertainty Avoidance

The future is unknown. We can choose to control it or let it unfold naturally.

In Dubai there is a high level of uncertainty avoidance, which brings about anxiety due to the overall ambiguity of life. Religion comes into play here – the importance of belief systems and institutes is encouraged from an emotional stance, even if proven futile. There is a desire to be busy and work hard because time equates to money. According to the 6 dimensions model, punctuality is key, however I disagree on this front. As a high context culture, time is more adaptable and flexible. The number one used phrase in Dubai is ‘Inshallah’ – meaning ‘God willing.’ This is used for EVERYTHING – because destiny is in God’s hands. Although Dubai markets itself as a city of tolerance, the level of tolerance is still very ambiguous. Unorthodox behaviour and ideas that deter the prominence of Islam are punishable by (Sharia) law. The Nazar Eye, also popularly known as the ‘all seeing eye’ is another interesting element that ties into uncertainty avoidance. Many wear this blue or green eye as a necklace to warn off bad spirits or the evil eye. The idea is that you don’t verbally reveal your wishes or certain future ambitions due to the risk of the evil eye that represents jealousy and bad luck.

There is a neutral level of uncertainty avoidance in Amsterdam, which I somewhat disagree with. Religion isn’t widely practised, but the Calvinist traits still dominate the functioning of society – for example, the Dutch don’t like to use curtains. The Dutch love order and functionality. Therefore, their desire for clarity amongst the ambiguity is driven by efficient governance, rather than the conclusion of our religious destiny – two very contrasting emotional needs, but similar objectives.

5. Long Term Orientation

How society maintains some links with its own past and challenges of the present and future.

In all honesty, I never found Dubai to be a culturally rich city – Emirati traditions are quite limited. The main ingredient that gives the city any spice are all the exotic nationalities that flock to make it the metropolitan hub it is today. The surrounding countries in the region, such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Oman have deeply preserved their culture. Dubai can feel like a mix of sweet American capitalism meets self-righteousness. However, still a relatively new country, the UAE gained its independence in 1971, that consolidated six very diverse counties. The current population consists of nearly 12% locals and the rest expatriates. I think the long term cultural landscape of this city will be really interesting because they’ve created a new culture within a culture. The slave trade was alive and well between the Arab Peninsula and the continent of Africa. Consequently, after the emancipation of these slaves, many took on the family name of their masters, which is visible today. Interestingly, one day the subject of race became a topic of conversation – caucasian, black, asian, mixed, etc., I overheard one Emirati woman (with distinct visible African heritage) describe herself as Caucasian because in her mind blacks were beneath her status. Mind blown AGAIN!

I never realised the extent of Dutch colonialism until I moved to Amsterdam. Their dominance was widespread in South East Asia, South Asia, the Caribbean, North America, and Africa. I often feel the Dutch slip under the radar in comparison to the British and their global influence. Indonesian and Surinamese communities are largely populated around the country. Although levels of racism exist everywhere, I believe they are more integrated into Dutch society that prevents an overall rhetoric of ‘us versus them.’ Nevertheless, controversial traditions such as Black Pete continue to be celebrated in this open-minded and tolerant city. Amsterdam is literally bursting with an influx of expatriates, especially due to the ‘30% ruling’ of highly skilled expats. No city or country is without its faults, but how they choose to embrace their past and present shapes the future.

6. Indulgence and Restraint

How people control or give into their desires and impulses according to their upbringing and the level of socialisation they were exposed to as children.

Strangely enough there is no current data on the United Arab Emirates regarding indulgence and restraint. However, from personal experience I can confirm that it scores high on the indulgence scale. There are rigid gender roles in Dubai, which percolates through to the very basics – blue is for boys and pink is for girls. There is great importance based upon physical appearance rather than intellectual capabilities. Spending money on hair, nails, facials, enhancements is actively encouraged. Common flaws or imperfections are openly condemned, something I previously wrote about – my struggle with acne. Children in Dubai are seen but not heard creating unconscious resentment – a major setback outlined by Eckhart Tolle. “The longing for love that is in every child is the longing to be recognised, not on the level of form, but on the level of Being. If parents honour only the human dimension of the child, but neglect the Being, the child will sense that the relationship is unfulfilled – something absolutely vital is missing creating a build up of pain.” 

I have witnessed this manifestation of pain play out in children. The concept of a child making a mistake is viewed as a fundamental weakness – especially regarding intellectual deficiencies or poor social integration – the blame is passed along without taking responsibility. Parents are often working long hours – the idea of ‘suffering’ to create a better life for your child is a recurring theme. The paradox of this very belief is that the active suffering of the parent to create a “better life” for their child creates long term suffering in the child through emotional and physical neglect. And so, the cycle. Pacifying a child with material possessions is commonplace. I regularly saw babies still unable to walk out for dinner with their parents and the nanny. Even still the parents shoved a tablet or iPhone into the child’s face – the perfect distraction that creates technological stimulation but prevents verbal engagement and ultimately stunts the development of socialisation skills. Taboo topics – sex outside marriage, drugs, and homosexuality are never discussed, but of course they occur. I came across many men and women in ‘loveless’ marriages because for example, the man was gay but could never reveal it to his family out of shame. The woman wanted to marry into his family for status and financial security. They have a few children and call it a day to appease their families of a secured future generation. He goes on to have male romances and she her own – a win-win situation. However, I feel great sadness for anyone who cannot live this one life as their authentic self due to social stigmas or religious dogmas. Often the overtly judgemental people enforcing these strict decrees are the very ones not practising what they preach. 

According to the 6 dimensions model, The Netherlands scores high for indulgence, which I once again, disagree with. In Amsterdam people do acknowledge their desires and impulses, but act upon them in a very balanced manner. A Dutch person can easily spend all day Sunday partying and consuming alcohol, but you can be sure they will be at work on Monday morning. Sunday partying in many other countries (particularly Ireland) would be unheard of unless it was a long weekend because the temptation to indulge is too costly. Dutch children are given the space to learn and mistakes happen without judgement because “we are all human.” Parents or extended family members are very active in the nurturing process of a child’s development. I truly believe the system of biking from a young age creates a bond of connection and trust between the parent and child. Outdoor activities are promoted in this health conscious city. Children are more engaged in their natural environment, rather than their head glued to an iPad. Traditional taboo topics such as sex, drugs, homosexuality and religion are openly discussed, accepted and critiqued with lower levels of judgement. For example, the sale of cannabis is legal, prostitution is legal (Red Light District), and The Netherlands was the first country in Europe to legalise same sex marriage in 2001. Modesty in relation to displays of financial wealth is really hard to spot. You could be sitting across from a billionaire in a cafe, but their covert affluence removes any form of pronounced superiority – a very refreshing approach to life!

An image of moral contrasts – a Red Light room below a residential apartment, beside a church with a Gay Pride flag hanging from the wall. Proof that we can all exist without societal prejudices.

As you can see there are many differences and similarities between the two cities – positive and negative. Of course, no city in the world is an absolute utopia. I often wish that I could subjectively pick out the different positive aspects of each city and create my own utopia. But maybe these unique facets of each city only function with the cons too?Nonetheless, there is no malice intended in my article – my experience is my experience and your experience is your experience. I love to share my knowledge with others and start a thought provoking conversation. Creating connection in the universe is one of the most powerful things we can do as human beings. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions – feel free to write a comment. 


Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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