Although expats working in the UAE for global corporations may find a more international business culture, Emirati businesses are traditionally hierarchical. Honour and reputation are important for success. Often, wealthy business owners in the UAE will have limited contact with their employees, choosing to run the company through a trusted manager instead. Decision making comes from the top, but the process usually involves a great deal of consultation with major stakeholders prior to implementation.
In the UAE there is quite a distinct separation between management and staff. Emirati managers tend not to socialise with their employees, keeping a professional distance. If a manager wants to hear opinions from employees, they will ask for them rather than expect them to be volunteered. Similarly, staff members do not question the opinions of their bosses, instead waiting for instructions and carrying them out. Although rules and regulations are very important, managers will try to bring up any issues with individual staff in a discreet manner rather than embarrassing them in public.
Emiratis have a reputation for being very polite and formal, so expect to be addressed by title, at least initially. Status is very significant, so make the effort to find out the correct titles for your contacts – for example ‘Sheikh’, meaning ‘chief’, ‘Mohandas’ (‘engineer’) or ‘Ustadh’ (‘professor’) might be appropriate.
Patience is vital for business dealings in the UAE as Emiratis prefer to deal with people they know. A great deal of time is invested in networking, nurturing relationships and building up the required levels of trust to work together, so you can expect developments to happen gradually. It may take several meetings just to establish a working base, but trying to rush proceedings will be detrimental to the outcome.
Despite the heat of the UAE, formal business attire is expected in most situations as it reflects on your professionalism. Most Emirati business people wear their traditional national dress: long white robes, usually referred to as kanduras, for men, and black abayas for women. However, it is not usually appropriate for foreign nationals to wear local attire, so instead choose modest western business clothing. Out of respect for local customs, women should ensure their arms, legs and back are covered.
In the UAE you will usually be greeted with the words ‘as-salamu alaykum’, meaning ‘peace be upon you’. Usually you would reply ‘wa alaykum al-salaam’, which means ‘and upon you be peace’. It is customary to greet the most senior person in the room first. Handshakes are common in the business world but should be kept brief, and you should only shake hands with an Emirati woman if she offers her hand first.
Although you should try to keep to agreed meeting times, don’t necessarily expect the same from your contacts as the UAE takes quite a relaxed approach to punctuality. Because the culture is so relationship-focused, people often prefer to miss a deadline than push someone else in order to meet it. A great deal of patience may be needed for success, but if you set meetings and timescales well ahead of time and keep reiterating and reviewing them, you will make progress.
Often business meetings in the UAE will take place in an informal setting such as a restaurant or coffee house rather than in the office. Small talk is common at the start of a meeting. There may or may not be a formal agenda, but if there is then you can expect at least some deviation from it. High-pressure sales tactics are not appreciated by Emiratis, so instead repeat your key points clearly and consistently to gain the trust of your contacts. People in the UAE have a reputation for driving a hard bargain, and may give vague acceptances that do not necessarily indicate a positive commitment.
Faith has a huge influence on business culture in the UAE, so understanding and respecting Islamic beliefs and local customs is important for foreigners. The Muslim day of prayer is Friday, so avoid scheduling any work-related activities then. During Ramadan, be sensitive to those observing the fast by not eating in public areas during daylight hours.
Arabic is the UAE’s official language and many business dealings are conducted in Arabic. English is considered the de facto language by many of the foreign residents of the UAE, but its use varies somewhat between emirates. However, it is very common to have translators present at business meetings and a lot of negotiations are conducted in this way. It is seen as polite to present your business card in Arabic as well as your own language, so consider having double-sided cards printed.