As one of the largest economic centres of the Middle East and a crossroads for many crucial industries – particularly the financial services sector – there are a lot of excellent business opportunities in the United Arab Emirates. In addition, with a huge immigrant and expatriate population, it is one of the most socially liberal environments in the Arab world, and a great strategic location from which to base your operations.
However, while the UAE is a modern environment, it does have some deeply rooted cultural differences that you should be aware of before you begin engaging in business ventures there.
Business Etiquette in the UAE
To illustrate the most important ones, we've compiled a comprehensive breakdown of UAE business culture, including the key customs and practices that you should observe.
Here is everything you need to know:
1. It Is an Islamic Culture
One of the first things you should prepare for when doing business in the UAE is the culture's inextricable connection to the Islamic faith. You need to be aware of these connections not just from a cultural perspective, but also in terms of compliance; this is because there are certain legislations in the country that are based on Sharia law. For instance, activities such as taking pictures without the subject's permission, or criticising Islam, are illegal; ignorance of these rules and restrictions will only make your business ventures more difficult.
It also has a significant effect on business hours and vacation time. Emiratis typically take Fridays as their day of worship, which leads to a weekend that encompasses Friday and Saturday. This results in a workweek that runs from Sunday to Thursday.
In addition, you should be aware of the many religious celebrations that divide the calendar throughout the year in the UAE. One of the most important, Ramadan, is an event every spring which lasts for about a month, and if you are staying in the UAE, you will need to be sensitive to the daytime fasting observed across the nation during this period.
2. There Are Many Languages
The official language utilised in government documents and by the general populace in the UAE is Arabic. However, as a melting pot nation with a high percentage of immigrants, many other languages are used, including English, Russian, and Hindi – especially in the metropolitan business hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While you need not panic if you find yourself without a translator, you can expect a smoother experience if you are accompanied by someone fluent in Arabic.
It is also wise to have your business card printed in Arabic on one side. Always treat business cards with respect and keep them on the table in front of you when presented one during a meeting. If you are offered a business card, it is an invitation to give your own. It is also customary in the UAE to only offer and receive items using your right hand, and this tradition extends to business cards as well.
3. Greetings Are Important
There are some important steps that you should be aware of when meeting new partners or clients in the UAE. Status carries a high importance in the country and, as such, you should greet the most senior person present first. Once this acknowledgement has been made, you can continue to introduce yourself to everyone else individually, often without much more regard for descending status indicators.
The traditional greeting in the UAE in Arabic is "As-salaam Alaikum," a phrase which means "peace be upon you." The appropriate response to this is "Wa Alaikum as-salaam," which translates to "and upon you be peace."
When greeting male business partners, a handshake is the expected greeting. However, these handshakes may be a good deal longer than they are in European and North American business meetings, and it is not unheard of for a business partner to guide a guest around the room while holding their hand. This is a respectful and polite method of introduction, as the connotations of hand-holding in Arabic cultures are different than in Western cultures.
If you are meeting with a female business associate, the wisest course of action is typically to wait and see what sort of greeting is offered and reciprocate. This may be a handshake, but there are more complex cultural issues determining these interactions, and it is better to play it safe than risk offending.
4. Business Meetings Are Unusual
At first glance, business meetings in the UAE can appear somewhat chaotic. It is not uncommon for people to come and go, for phones to be answered during meetings, and for the course of conversation to take abrupt shifts. The room may suddenly stand for the arrival of an elder, and late arrivals occur often.
Don't worry, though; this is all a symptom of the great importance that Emiratis place on personal connections. Casual socialising – even when it seems that things should be more focused – are how businesspeople in the UAE build connections and network. Be ready to adapt, and be aware that you may not always be able to stick to the timetable you have set for you and your team.
This thinking also carries over into how negotiations in the UAE often play out. When you walk into a business meeting to negotiate something for your company, your primary goal should be to improve your relationship with the other party and acquire their trust. That does not mean you should not have an objective in mind for whatever you need to accomplish in the meeting, of course, but be ready to make modifications to your original plans when things shift.
5. Business Dress Is Modest
In general, the dress code for business meetings in the UAE is not that different from meetings in Western business environments. However, the key concern when dressing for your stay in the UAE is to observe modesty. Expose little bare skin and cover your shoulders, arms, and feet, particularly as a female.
Men dress in a formal suit for business meetings, with darker colours perceived as more professional. A suit is also a good choice for a woman attending a business meeting, although a skirt is fine if the hemline stays below the knee.
Many of the men and women you will see will most likely be wearing a full-body shirt for men, known as a kandura, or a robe called an abaya for women. You are not expected to wear these (or a headdress) unless you decide to attend a religious function, in which case prepare to make certain wardrobe accommodations.
6. Food Is Important
Finally, it's worth noting that food is an important part of Emirati culture, and you will likely be invited to a business lunch or dinner at some point. At these meetings, you should be aware of the restrictions on alcohol that are in place throughout the nation. Only non-Muslims can consume alcohol in the UAE, and many locations do not serve it. If you are not offered alcohol when you arrive, it is better not to ask for any.
In addition, shellfish and pork products are not eaten by Muslims. If you find these items being served when you are dining with a Muslim business partner, it is better to avoid ordering these.
The UAE is a strategically important place for business, and with a little preparation and willingness to adapt, you will find it a productive and welcoming environment. Whether you are looking to start your own company in one of the seven emirates that make up the country, planning to relocate, or simply conducting business in the region, these six points will undoubtedly stand you in good stead along the way.
In the meantime, if you are seriously considering the prospect of starting a company in the UAE, we can offer company formations in the Emirates of Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah, as well as personal and corporate bank accounts with the Dubai-based Emirates NBD bank.
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