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Your One-Size-Fits-All Guide to UAE Business Culture

UAE Business Culture

Picture a crowded Dubai street. What do you see?

Maybe you thought of towering skyscrapers, sweltering sunshine, luxury cars.

Who do you see?

Men in flowing white kandurahs? Women in abayas? Or a sea of faces from all over the world?

The United Arab Emirates is made up of eighty percent expats.

That’s an astounding number.

But they must be doing something right.

The average annual income in the UAE is nearly US $130,000.

That means that aside from a strong sense of business savvy, the expats living, working, and thriving in the UAE have something truly special.

They understand and embrace the local business culture.

It’s not an easy task.

That’s why we’ve compiled this one-size-fits-all guide to UAE business culture.

One article can’t capture everything. You’ll need to arrive with an open mind and be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them.

But this guide is going to let you hit the ground running.

Getting To Know Someone

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1. Getting to Know Someone

A greeting is the first thing you learn in any language class.

That’s because greetings are the foundation of any strong social interaction—if you nail the Arabic greeting, you’ve made a rock-solid start.

In the Arab world as well as in many other places, it’s important to build personal connections. In fact, in the UAE it’s practically required in order for business transactions to go smoothly.

And in this connection-oriented business culture, you can achieve that foundation by making an effort to remember people’s names and their social statuses.

You need to remember the guy you met in the elevator and the name of his cousin who’s looking for a job.

Pulling this off not only impresses others, but it also shows that you are the type of person who remembers more than just the company and the bottom line.

You remember the person holding the pen.

Now, when you greet someone, you’re going to shake their hand. If you were educated in American business norms, for instance, you might go for a firm, even aggressive handshake to show your power and stature.

But that doesn’t fly quite so well in the UAE. There, you’ll want to back off a bit and offer your hand as a sign of respect instead of strength.

Don’t be taken aback if someone offers you a gentle handshake—this is just something that carries a different connotation in the Arab world.

One more thing to note here: men should avoid offering or expecting handshakes from Arab women. It may happen occasionally, but as a you should avoid initiating it.

It’s just seen as a little too forward in the more conservative business culture of the UAE.

Men are expected to respect women’s personal space by not entering it at all, so the proper alternative to a mixed-sex handshake is to place the right hand over the heart along with a slight bow.

Women shouldn’t take it as a snub if their handshake is rejected; it’s coming from a place of respect.

This personal space extends to eye contact. It’s considered poor form to hold eye contact too long, especially with the opposite sex.

Eye contact norms do vary from person to person, so pay attention to each situation individually. Some people might meet your gaze every time and others might demur.

Fortunately, eye contact etiquette isn’t taken particularly seriously; just follow your instincts here to avoid an awkward situation.

Further, when you’re being introduced to others, you’re going to need to know their title.

Titles are taken seriously, whether they come from a royal family or a university.

If someone is a doctor, then call them Doctor, and if someone is a sheikh, call them Sheikh along with their full name.

Again, this is where social status and age play an important role. If you visibly defer to the authority and status of others, it means you’re accepting the cultural role that’s expected of you—and things will go smoothly because of it.

No business introduction is complete without an exchange of business cards. Yours should be high-quality and printed in both English and Arabic.

When you hand it over, always use your right hand (more on that soon) and accept the other card with both hands. Study it carefully and put it away with care.

The business card is an extension of the person giving it, so it should be treated as such.

Once the introductions have been made, what’s the next step?

Meeting

2. Setting Up a Meeting

When it comes to business in the UAE, the old adage is truer than ever: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

That’s why the introductions are so important, and that’s why it’s so crucial that you remember the names and titles of the people you’ve been introduced to.

And keep those business cards!

Family ties run extremely deep. If someone comes from a powerful family, you can be sure they can use those family connections to get what they want.

And if you have the honor of being invited into somebody’s home, it means they’re potentially opening up those family connections to you.

Now, most of these discussions are going to take place over a meal of some kind. Certainly, if you’re invited to any informal gathering there will be snacks on the table whether or not negotiations are too.

You can expect dates, nuts, and strong Arabic coffee at a minimum. Your hosts will continue to refill your cup as soon as it’s empty—but you can politely decline by tilting the cup side to side.

At a restaurant, you should follow the general norms of table manners, at the very least.

That means no crunching your ice, no smacking your lips, and no elbows on the table.

These are by no means universal norms, but in the UAE just as in many other places, it’s polite to be relatively more reserved when you’re dining with company.

But take a closer look around you, and you’ll see that it’s also common to tear your bread instead of slicing, and that the napkin is always placed on the lap.

You’ll notice occasionally that lavish meals are provided for some business discussions. That’s a sign of respect for the invitee and should be enjoyed.

But when you’re ordering on someone else’s bill, it’s polite to order a relatively simple meal instead.

After the food arrives, wait for others to begin eating unless told otherwise.

And no matter how good the shawarma or stuffed camel looks, you absolutely can’t start unless everyone has arrived.

This is a way to reciprocate the generosity of your host by affording them the luxury of choosing when the meal truly begins.

No matter what you’re eating, don’t use your left hand to place food in your mouth or offer it to others. The left hand is traditionally used for cleaning after going to the toilet—and that’s the last thing you want to be reminded of at mealtime.

When you’re having snacks and coffee, you’ll quickly learn to juggle the coffee cup and the dates to stick to this right-hand rule.

As the UAE is a Muslim country, you should avoid ordering alcohol even if you’re aware that some of your guests drink.

Let the locals be the judges of whether or not to provide alcoholic beverages. The “cheers” gesture is still used, though, so be sure to offer a toast (of water, juice, or soda) to others.

If you happen to be hosting a private, informal gathering, you should definitely check with a local about the arrangements. Doing this not only frees you from the burden of planning (always a plus) but also helps you avoid any glaring faux pas.

The guests are sure to be impressed when they realize the work you’ve put in to making them feel comfortable and respected.

So what happens when the meal is winding down and it’s time for further discussion?

Business Etiquette

3. Business Etiquette

If you wake up late-morning in the UAE, you might be dismayed to read that the temperature is already a balmy 34°C (93°F). The last thing you want to do is leave your air-conditioned room in a suit and tie.

But that’s the norm in the Arab world.

The dress code is modest and formal virtually all the time. Men should wear suits and ties, and women should cover their shoulders and legs while keeping jewelry to a minimum.

It’s really not as bad as it sounds. If you shop around, you can find high-quality formal wear that looks good without constricting you.

And after a few months in-country, you’ll get used to the heat and how it dictates the ebb and flow of the day’s activities.

If you’re not of Arab descent, don’t wear the traditional Emirati clothing to a meeting unless specifically invited or directed to do so. Expats should stick to international standards of formal wear.

When you get to the meeting, you’ll notice a couple of differences from what you may be used to. It’s commonplace for locals to arrive a few minutes late, though you should strive to always be on time.

As the meeting goes on, you’ll no doubt experience further small interruptions. It’s seen as normal for people to check their texts or emails while others are talking or presenting. Other people in the office might come in unannounced to deliver a message or ask someone to take a call.

It’s important to take these events not as a sign of disrespect, but simply as representative of a different business culture around time and attention.

They’re not meant to test your patience; it’s just that your culture and theirs have different ideas about meeting etiquette. Be relaxed and open-minded, and don’t let small inconveniences cause you frustration.

Remember, if you’re a guest in someone’s office and they see that you’re uncomfortable with the way they do business, that’s going to start losing you points. If you’re frustrated at little interruptions, try to control your reactions and let it go.

Use this extra time to gather your thoughts or try looking at the day’s main ideas from a different angle.

Once you get down into the heart of the meeting, get ready to negotiate. Emiratis love the art of negotiation.

The ability to successfully negotiate in a meeting is a valued skill that takes years to perfect—and you’re the perfect candidate to test their skill.

These negotiations will always be polite and cordial, but you may find that there’s more back-and-forth than you’re used to. It’s not quite fair to label Emirati business tactics as aggressive; think of them more as principled. And you should be ready to step up to the plate as well.

It’s very likely that your discussions will last across several meetings. Again, it’s important to be patient and respect the time needed to make a decision. You can use this time to think more carefully as well!

When you finally come to an agreement, be careful with your words. Oral agreements are taken very seriously in the UAE, so be ready to back up what you say.

When it comes time to sign the contract, it had better not be different from what you agreed upon or the whole process might begin again.

Lastly, how should you behave yourself in the meeting? Well, here’s a few more body language tips.

If you end up crossing your legs, make sure you don’t point the soles of your feet at anybody else.

This is easy to forget (and easy to forgive as well) but it’s like scratching your nose with your middle finger.

Your counterpart might choose to ignore it, but then again, they might not. So don’t take the risk.

In some places, telling risque jokes is a sign of camaraderie. In the UAE, it’s seen as just plain rude. Avoid all kinds of rude language, even when you’re just chatting or joking around.

Above all, it’s important to stay relaxed with a friendly smile. Don’t fidget or glance around. Be sincere, be in the moment, and, above all, be respectful.

Once you’ve mastered the art of the meeting in the UAE, there’s one more big step you can take…

Learning The Language

4. Learning the Language

Many expats find it easy to live in the UAE as English-speakers.

The enormous expat population means that there’s always a market for local translators. It’s easy, affordable, and usually necessary to get a translator at some point in your career.

However, learning Arabic opens up doors that you didn’t even know were there.

Arabic comes in several main varieties. In general, Gulf Arabic is spoken in the UAE among native Emiratis.

The formal written language—found in laws and business contracts—is a more standardized version known as Modern Standard Arabic.

The differences in grammar and vocabulary are considerable, and it’s necessary to spend a lot of time on both. So what are the advantages?

Understanding the written Arabic language frees you from relying on translators and paints you as someone who is willing to go the extra mile to understand the local business world.

Even if you hire a translator or receive a translated version of a contract, it’s a huge psychological boost to be able to read the original as well.

And although most signs are partly or entirely in English, it’s a great feeling to be able to fully understand what you see on the street.

Using the spoken language is a mark of enormous respect toward the local culture.

Again, it frees you from relying on interpreters if you happen to be dealing with people who prefer to discuss things in Arabic.

No matter how good the connection is, there’s always going to be a barrier if your words have to be relayed through a third party. Most people don’t realize how much escapes them if they rely on others to understand.

If you can only manage a few Arabic words, that already sets you apart from those who live their expat lives in a foreign-language bubble.

And if you can stick to your studies until you achieve fluency, you’re sure to find advantages every single day, in every aspect of life.

5. Conclusion

I hope it’s clear from this short guide how each facet of business culture in the UAE blends together.

Without good knowledge of body language, you can’t read people and see how they’re taking your suggestions. If you don’t remember anybody’s name, you can’t make connections with them over coffee.

If you’re not patient with cultural misunderstandings, you won’t be able to succeed as an expat.

This is because culture is an inseparable part of everything we say and do. Everything we perceive as “normal” is only normal because our culture tells us so.

And if you arrive in the UAE expecting things to be “normal” when you get off the plane, you’re in for a nasty shock.

Instead, prepare yourself for success by being ready to watch others and learn from them—and by being ready to learn from your own mistakes as well.

As a foreigner in a new place, you’ll be given the luxury of understanding and even deference if you happen to make mistakes.

But the fewer mistakes you make, the smoother things will go and the more impressive you’ll be.

So pay attention to this guide and to others like it. Even more importantly, though, pay attention to the things you think of as normal or surprising.

Understanding those innate biases will go a long way toward helping you embrace the local culture at all levels.

And that’s what you need for success.

Author: Yassir Sahnoun is a HubSpot certified content strategist, copywriter and polyglot who works with language learning companies. He helps companies attract sales using content strategy, copywriting, blogging, email marketing & more.

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