Introduction to business culture in the UAE

20th August 2018
Introduction to business culture in the UAE

The UAE has the largest net migration rate in the world, 88% of the UAE population are expatriates. This means that the UAE is regarded as one of the most diverse and liberal areas in the region, however, there are still social mores and codes of etiquette to consider.

Business culture in the UAE

The UAE is a Muslim country. Before moving to the UAE, you should be aware of the local customs and business culture, especially if you haven’t visited before. In this article, we’ll address the most common differences between a business meeting in the UK vs the UAE.

These are the most commonly asked questions by business people jetting off to start their new lives in the UAE.

Business attire in the UAE

The Islamic dress code is not compulsory in the UAE. Most male Emirati wear a kandura and most Emirati women wear an abaya. Most western expats will wear a business suit. Modesty is important, but covering the head is not necessary outside of religious sites.

Language

While the Emirati population is considerably lower than the expat community, Arabic is still the most commonly spoken language. English is widely used for most written communication but almost all official and legal documents are written in Arabic. This means you will have a head start if you have a solid knowledge of the language. If not, you’ll need to work with a lawyer before entering into any contractual agreement. If you’ll be working with the public sector, fluency in Arabic becomes much more important. It’s also preferable to get one side of your business card printed in Arabic, even if you can’t speak the language.

Business meetings in the UK vs the UAE

Meetings are conducted in a very similar way to the west in most cases although you may notice some differences depending on whether you are meeting with Emirati or other westerners. The customary greeting is “As-salaam alaikum", to which the reply is "Wa alaikum as-salaam”.

During meetings, you should present your business card with your right hand, never offer anything with your left. If you’re enjoying a meal using your hands (as is tradition), use only your right hand. The golden rule is, the left is considered ‘unclean’.

When meeting with women, wait to see if they offer their hand for a handshake. Most will make this easy for you by placing their right hand over their heart so as not to keep you guessing or feeling awkward.

Another important piece of cultural etiquette you need to know -- never display the sole of your shoe. If you imagine the crudest way to say ‘go away’ in English, you’re close to what this gesture means in the UAE. British men have a tendency to sit with their legs crossed and, if they do, will show the sole of their shoe to anyone sitting adjacent or opposite. Best advice it to make sure you keep both feet on the floor when sitting in the company of any Arab nationals.

While it’s important that you set an agenda, and stick to your proposed time-slot, it’s equally important to understand punctuality is not always adhered to. Don’t take it personally if your guests arrive late or if your meeting overruns as a result. Plan for it to happen and if it does, remember it’s not you, it’s just how it is in the UAE.

Building business relationships

Relationships are key to business around the world, but in the UAE, building trust at the start of a relationship is even more pertinent than in the UK. You might find it takes a little longer than you expect for the negotiation phase of a business deal compared to the UK. Face-to-face time isn’t reserved only for the boardroom.

Be prepared to spend time outside the confines of office buildings, to dine regularly with your prospects and customers and to get to know them on a more personal level before any contracts get underway. Phone calls and emails are seen as a little impersonal so in-person dialogue is far more successful. The upside of this is that once that trust is built, it tends to last longer than it might in the UK. Consultant’s report that business relationships last two or three times longer in the UAE so there’s a definite return on investment while you’ll also have the opportunity to share stories and learn more about each other’s culture. You’ll find that the decision makers are usually high-net-worth individuals who are well educated and well-travelled. They’ll enjoy talking to you about the places they’ve visited and may well have been to the UK themselves.

Finding the decision maker

Evenings out over a shisha pipe and local delicacies give you more opportunity for one-on-one contact with the decision makers. But how do you identify the people who hold the purse-strings? In the UK, we are used to decisions-making being somewhat democratised or delegated depending on the level of investment, departmental budgets and contract duration. In the UAE, business decisions will more often be passed up the chain of command for final sign-off. This makes it more important to engage with the top-level in order to succeed.

Because of the importance of relationships, it’s preferable to be introduced by a mutual contact. Networking events, exhibitions and the Overseas Market Introduction Service (OMIS) can give you that initial foot in the door.

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