How Arabic names are constructed
On your first encounter with names in the UAE and the Middle East, you may end up a little confused. In the West you may have two names, such as George Clooney or Brad Pitt or, you are sometimes referred to by your 3 names in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Most of the time it is pretty simple. Arabic naming differs a little. It may seem complicated to the uninitiated, but bear with us and you will understand in our quick guide.
Let's take the name of the current Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE. (We'll omit the Sheikh part)
Mohammed bin Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum
His name that he goes by would be Mohammed. That is equivalent to the forename in the West, which is sometimes referred to as a Christian Name.
Al-Maktoum is his family name. This is the equivalent of his surname. So what is all that in the middle? Well, firstly, bin means son of. So we have Mohammed, son of Rashid who was the son of Saeed. Sheikh Rashid was the first ruler of Dubai in the UAE era. So it is really simple. Forename followed by father's name followed by grandfather's name followed by the family name. In the case of females, the word bint is used, which means daughter of. An example would be Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi, the Economy Minister.
However in general context you will hear reference only to the father's name in general, giving: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum in official terminology, or even Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid. In reality, he is referred to as Sheikh Mohammed, but in context. Out of context, the name could be confused with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi which brings us onto the next point.
Many, many people are called Mohamed, after the Prophet. Spelt in various forms in English, (Mohamed, Mohammed, Muhammed, Mohd.) it is the most popular name in the UAE and, indeed, the world. There is a joke that if you need anything done, you should call Mohammed Chang, since Chang is the most popular surname in the world. And while Mohammed is a very popular name, the UAE Nationals have a staple few names that are particularly common, and you should be especially careful in getting the name right.
You will encounter many names that start with Abdul. The term Abdul means slave of and is used in the context of the 99 names of Allah. Since Muslims can not be called by one of these names, it is preceded with Abd or Abdul, so, slave of Allah. For example, Abdurrahman. It is wrong, therefore, to refer to someone as Abdul, on its own. It just does not make sense.
Just as you get used to everyone's name, you will realize that the some refer to each other by other names. Some Arabs are referred to by other names referring to their eldest son. So, if Mohamed has his first son who is called Saif, you would refer to him as Abu Saif, literally Father of Saif. Similarly, the mother can be referred to in a similar way. If Fatima was married to Mohamed, she would be referred to as Umm Saif. The Kunya is way of being friendly and respectful at the same time. It is the midway between being too formal (Sir) and too friendly (habibi/habibti). A prime example of the Kunya being used is of President Mahmoud Abbas. He will be referred to on many on occasion as Abu Mazen, even in official statements by George W. Bush.
And so, if Dhabi means Gazelle, does Abu Dhabi actually mean Father of the Gazelle. Well, not really, Abu can also mean a place from where something came from. Gazelles (although endangered) still do exist in the wild in Abu Dhabi as well as in captivity on Sir Bani Yas island, etc. The mountain gazelle, which are called Al Dhabi, gave the Emirate its name because the legend is that a bedouin once followed a dhabi to water and all the way to the land that is today Abu Dhabi. Finally, Abu can also be used to refer to something associated with someone, like a nickname. If you carry a laptop or wear a blue suit, you might be referred to as Abu laptop or Abu Blue Suit.