With its business-friendly regulations, the UAE does remarkably well in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, ranking 31st out of 189 countries. Furthermore, because of the relatively large international community in the UAE, especially in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the country has become very accommodating to foreign customs.
However, in a business setting, expats still have to make sure they read up on proper conduct in the UAE business world. You wouldn’t want to lose a prospective client by handing them your business card with your left hand, would you?
For many expat women in the Middle East, dressing appropriately for the workplace is a regular concern. Having said this, insecurities about possibly offending local business partners in the UAE can arise in both men and women. Even though the UAE is relatively liberal compared to some of its neighbors, dressing according to local norms is important for job interviews, as well as in the workplace.
Showing your bare arms, shoulders, calves, or thighs in a professional context is not acceptable. Makeup should be worn in moderation, and wearing a lot of jewelry is also frowned upon. Needless to say, these guidelines also apply to men. If you are meeting new business contacts and are unsure about anything, the go-to solution is to follow your host’s example. For instance, regardless of how uncomfortable you are in the sweltering Dubai heat, do not take off your jacket unless your host does.
First things first: the regular greeting is “As-salam alaikum” (peace be upon you), to which the appropriate response would be “Wa alaikum as-salam” (peace be upon you too). Please is “Min Fudlek” and thank you is “Shukran”. After pleasantries have been exchanged, you can bid farewell by saying “Ma salamaa”.
Addressing someone by their correct title is important as it shows you recognize their status. You would address the boss as Sheikh or Sheikha for men and women, respectively. For Mr. and Mrs. you would say Sayed or Sayeda. Conversely, expect to be addressed by your first name following your respective title: Mr. John Smith would be addressed as Mr. John in the UAE.
Letting others lead the way also applies for greetings, especially when there are women involved. Male expats should wait to see if a Muslim woman extends her hand or not before extending theirs. Similarly, as a woman, you should wait to see if a man extends his hand to you. As a sign of respect for the hierarchical structure in the UAE, be sure to greet the most senior person in a room first.
Don’t be surprised if your hand is held for a relatively long time. This is nothing to get alarmed about, and, to be on the safe side, just wait till your host withdraws their hand. Finally, always use your right hand for everything; it will be taken as an insult if you hand anything to anyone using your left hand.
Now that we’ve covered hands, it’s time to move on to feet. It is very insulting to show someone the sole of your shoe during a business meeting, or on any other occasion, for that matter. This may sound like something that’s easily avoided, but, for example in the case of men, be careful when you sit cross-legged with your foot resting on the opposing knee. Also be careful not to accidentally touch a business associate’s foot with the sole of your foot, under the table.
Maintaining a close relationship with your professional network is essential in the UAE. Having the right connections will certainly come in handy. Accounts of rules having been bent a little or dossiers having been moved to the top of the pile are not unheard of in the UAE business world.
Making connections which can be used as introductions to other contacts is never a bad idea. Business cards are a handy way to establish such connections, but not a necessity in the UAE. If you do print business cards, though, make sure to print the text both in English and Arabic.
Cultivate your relationships by planning future get-togethers. Emiratis are very hospitable as this is part of their culture, and reciprocating this hospitality goes a long way. Face-to-face meetings are often preferred over phone calls as these can be interpreted as rather impersonal. Meetings over lunch or dinner are popular.
When it comes to punctuality in a business setting in the UAE, there is a bit of a double standard. Punctuality is not strictly practiced by locals, but it is expected of foreign residents. Expect to be kept waiting, but don’t think anything of it.
Patience is also important when you make deals as the straight-to-the-point approach is not appreciated in the UAE. Similarly, if you notice your business partner being evasive, you should probably interpret this as a bad sign: in the UAE business associates will probably do anything but say “no” straight to your face.
Even if you have planned a meeting with someone, it is not unheard of for said meeting to be interrupted by others or by telephone calls. Speaking of scheduling meetings, you should be considerate of prayer times and religious holidays and work around them.
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