The United Arab Emirates is an Islamic country, and the Emirati work culture is, therefore, more conservative than most international companies undertaking their International Expansion there. The UAE has a truly multinational population, with roughly 10% of around 10 million inhabitants being Emiratis. Expatriate workers among business professionals explore a rapidly diversifying economy which has moved away from being labour-intensive and heavily reliant on huge amounts of oil and gas (which account for 10% and 20% of global reserves, respectively). Renewable, hydrocarbons and green energy development, telecommunications, tourism and hospitality, and advanced technologies have come to the fore. The Emirates has been ranked in the top 30 worldwide for business services to multinationals. The World Economic Forum ranked the UAE in the top 30 of the ‘most networked’ nations.

Founded in 1971, the UAE is at the crossroads of Asia and Africa, at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, on the Persian Gulf, with sea access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Qatar (disputed), and Oman and maritime borders with Qatar and Iran. Dubai, founded in 1833, is the most populous Emirate in the UAE, which also comprises the Emirates of Abu Dhabi (the capital), Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Um Al Quwain. Dubai, the most famous of the seven Emirates, is renowned for luxury shopping, tourism, nightlife and stunning architecture, including the 830m tall Burj Khalifa tower. Yet the Emirati work culture remains very traditional in many respects. Despite the international influences, adjustments must be made whichever country incomers arrive from.

The Basics of the Emirati Work Culture

Language: The business language is English, and the official language is Arabic, so learn some suitable phrases.

Working hours and conditions: Generally speaking, the UAE workday runs eight hours, from 9 am to 5 pm. Additionally, the workweek runs from Sunday to Thursday. Weekends are on Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday. Conversely, during the holy month of Ramadan, most people only work six hours a day.

Punctuality: Emirates respects punctuality. Be respectful by being on time and confirming appointments a couple of days beforehand.

Communication: Because of its conservative culture, communication is more formal here. For instance, you should address people as “Mr” or “Ms” when you first meet them. And while men can exchange a light handshake, when meeting with women, you should always wait for them to offer their hand and not prolong eye contact. Members of the opposite team should be greeted individually, most senior first, with a handshake with the men and saying “As-salamu alaykum(peace be upon you), with “Wa ʿalaykumu s-salam” (and upon you be peace) as the reply. Only use the right hand to shake hands.

Meetings and Negotiations: Business meetings can be formally staged in the boardroom or break-out rooms over a “getting to know you” cup of coffee. In business meetings, compliments are customary. Because relationship-building is such an essential part of the culture, it is common to flatter your hosts and their organisation. Similarly, small talk and social conversation always kick off every meeting. Chatting about families, the country, and local food, for example, is an excellent way to go. However, avoiding divisive topics such as politics and religion would be best. Despite a seemingly relaxed approach, meetings will be based on a great deal of strategic planning. Lower levels of staff may carry this out, but decisions come down from the top in a vertically hierarchical business structure. Decisions can take time – be patient and do not try to force the pace.

Business Cards: In a meeting, you will typically exchange cards at the beginning. Always do so with your right hand when giving your card, as it is impolite to use your left. All company employees should have a business card. Your card should include your company name, designation, phone number, e-mail, and website. Moreover, the card should be in both Arabic (the official local language of the UAE) and English (the local business language). Always present the Arabic face-up.

Dress Code: Most locals wear traditional clothing in business situations: dishdasha for men (the long white shift) and an abaya for women (a floor-length robe). While expatriates should not adopt the local dress, they should wear formal attire that is modest and not revealing. Men should choose suits and dress shoes. Meanwhile, women should pay close attention to their outfits. Make sure to cover your shoulders, chest, upper arms, and knees at all times. Long skirts and dresses are a good option. You could also wear a light blazer and shirt over loose, flowing trousers. In any case, it is best to avoid wearing flashy jewellery and heavy perfume.

Gifts: When meeting potential clients for the first time, giving a token offering is a nice gesture. Similarly, giving a gift when closing a deal is always appropriate. Gifts are also appropriate to mark big religious festivals, such as Ramadan. If you can buy it from overseas, so much the better. Locals appreciate receiving gifts from different cultures. It is best to refrain from exchanging gifts across genders. If you must give a gift to a woman, however, it is best to have a woman on your team present it. At the very least, you could say it is from a female relative. The same applies to a woman having to present a gift to a male business associate. You should also avoid giving certain items as gifts, as they can offend Muslim associates. For instance, do not give alcohol, pigskin products, personal items, anything with pork, or anything related to dogs.

Out of Hours: Always accept hospitality offers, as a business is often conducted over lunch or dinner. Be prepared for conservative Emiratis not being willing to eat with a member of the other sex, particularly in restaurants. Always accept tea or coffee when offered at the meeting.


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