Want to make the best impression possible when you visit the UAE on your business travels?
Then you need to learn a bit about the country, its people and how to behave!
To help you avoid any potential cultural faux pas we are going to have a look at the culture and some important tips on etiquette, manners and expectations of foreigners in the country.
The UAE is Very Multicultural
Did you know that Emiratis are a minority in their own country?
Only 20% of the UAE population are indigenous Emiratis, whilst over 25% are expatriates from India.
The remaining 55% of expats, originate from a diverse mix of over 200 different countries.
As such, the UAE is incredibly diverse and, if you’re going to work in the UAE, then you’re likely to be mixing with people from all over the world.
Although this multicultural setting makes it very important that you have at least a basic generic cultural awareness, an understanding of the culture in the UAE is equally important as businesses are more likely to be owned by Emiratis.
Likewise, important stakeholders and senior staff are also more likely to be Emirati!
Islam Shapes UAE Society and Culture
Virtually all Emiratis are Muslim. As such, it’s really important that you develop an understanding of Islam before leaving for the UAE.
Not only will this understanding ensure you appreciate the culture and values of your Emirati colleagues, but you will also appreciate the culture and values of colleagues from across the rest of the Middle East and Muslim dominant countries, such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
This understanding will help you to communicate and interact more effectively with your peers and enable you to build greater trust by demonstrating religious understanding.
Here are some points to consider:
Islam shapes timetables - If you work remotely with UAE clients/colleagues and rely primarily on remote contact or are restricted to brief face to face contact, then be careful to manage calls and meetings around the Islamic calendar. Calling during prayer times, expecting a response during the Islamic weekend or asking for work to be returned during important religious holidays will not present you in a good light.
Daily Prayers (as-Salah) - Most Emiratis (and non-Emirati Muslim expats) adhere to the obligatory five daily prayers. Prayer typically takes precedence over business. As such, if individuals need to pray then they are likely to cut the call short. Use webtools such as Islamic Finder to establish current prayer times for the Emirate of your counterpart. Bear in mind that prayer times are determined by the position of the sun and, as such, they fluctuate by the day. There is also a small difference in prayer times between the different Emirates.
The Weekend – Friday (which technically begins at sunset on Thursday) is the Islamic holy day, making the Islamic weekend Thursday and Friday. This means that you may need to be available to make or accept calls on a Saturday or Sunday if the subject matter is important.
Islamic Holidays & Events – There are a number of important Islamic events and holidays which you should be aware of.
The first is Ramadan, a month of fasting and additional devotions. This is not a good month to arrange meetings as most people have less energy due to both the toll that fasting takes on the body, coupled with late nights spent praying and engaging in communal feasts. Important conversations should take place either before or after Ramadan.
Other Islamic holidays include Eid al Fitr, (which marks the end of Ramadan) and Eid al Adha, which involves the communal sacrificing and eating of animals to commemorate Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. The dates for Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha change each year so you should check when they fall each year prior to booking meetings.
Relationships Take Precedence in Arab Culture
Emiratis, all Arabs do, place greater importance on relationships and people than they do on schedules and deadlines.
As such, it’s common for offices in the UAE to operate an open-door policy, so you may find yourself being interrupted by other people who are seeking guidance or people making courtesy calls during your visit. You may even find that people accept phone-calls or start texting during meetings.
Unless your meeting is very important or confidential, then expect any discussions to take place in this open environment.
Be accepting of this and do not become frustrated by the interruptions. It’s important that you show patience as, if you fail to do so, you will likely be perceived as someone that puts business and time before relationships which will not present you in a good light.
Emirati Culture is Tactile
Emiratis tend to have a very close perception of personal space. As such, you may feel that your peers are invading your perceived personal space.
Avoid stepping back from your counterpart however, as this may be perceived as a rebuke.
An Emirati also may touch your hand, arm, or back when speaking to you, but it is important not to recoil as this may be perceived as offensive.
It’s important to note that trust is one of the core values for Arabs and, by pushing someone back, you may give the impression that you don’t trust them.
It’s really important to note that tactile behaviours do not translate across the genders.
As such, you should avoid making physical contact or being too close to someone of the opposite sex. This may even extend to handshakes.
If you are meeting someone from the opposite sex, then wait to see if they extend their hand before extending yours. Where it’s evident that your counterpart doesn’t want physical contact, then consider placing your right hand over your heart and giving a small bow.
Right is Best in UAE Culture
Using the left hand to shake hands, give something, or accept anything is considered extremely insulting as the left hand is traditionally used by the Emiratis (and Muslims generally) for cleaning oneself after using the bathroom.
Rooted in Islamic traditions, the right hand is used for virtuous and clean activities such as eating, donating charity, shaking hands, giving presents etc.
As such, you should be aware of the hand you use if you are to make the best possible impression with your Emirati peers.
The ‘right is best’ mentality extends to almost everything from who should leave an elevator first or through a doorway or to who is greeted first in a room (if nobody senior is present).
Emiratis Keep their Feet on the Floor
In keeping with the rest of the Middle East and other Muslim cultures, it is considered extremely insulting to show anyone the sole of your shoe.
Although individuals from this region tend to be very forgiving of foreigners, this behaviour can be interpreted as suggesting to someone that “You are lower than dirt.”
When sitting down in a meeting with an Emirati it is best to avoid crossing your legs and instead keep your feet firmly on the floor. If you’re invited to a meal where diners sit on the floor, then put your feet under your bottom so that they are not visible.
Status is Central to Emirati Culture
Status is also very important in Emirati culture, so it is important to address people with the correct titles and salutations.
If you are dealing with a government official, refer to them as 'Excellency' or 'Your Excellency.' As members of the Emirati royal families often hold high positions in business and government, you may have to refer to them as 'Your Highness' or 'Your Royal Highness.'
It is best to confirm titles prior to meetings or phone calls where possible. If you are meeting an individual with the title of Shaykh, be sure to pronounce this as 'Shake', rather than 'Sheek’.
Emiratis also enter and exit rooms in order of rank, so it is important to pay special attention to this.
Allow those of a higher rank than you to go first, greet those of a higher rank before greeting those of a lower rank and do not interrupt or challenge high ranking individuals when they are speaking.
Emirati Culture Places Emphasis on Honour
Honor and reputation play a critical role in Emirati culture and you should be very aware of this is if you are to make a good impression and build trust.
You should protect people’s honour by not challenging or criticising anyone in pubic, by not putting them on the spot, asking them difficult questions or undermining them in any way in front of their subordinates.
If you fail to do so, these relationships can be irreparably damaged.
Discover More About Emirati Business Culture
These etiquette tips should give you a good head start when embarking on business relationships in the UAE.
If you want to maximise your business outcomes however, then we suggest you enrol on our UAE Cultural Awareness eLearning online programme.
Here's a preview!
This comprehensive eLearning programme covers business critical cultural knowledge to help make your UAE business assignments a success.
The course covers….
1. Emirati Religion
Understanding the influence of religion will help you win the respect of your Emirati peers , avoid offence and navigate local customs.
2. The Emirates
Awareness of the makeup of the seven emirates will help you appreciate the diversity and traditions of the region and avoid making mistakes.
3. Emirati Values
Appreciating core Emirati values will significantly improve your ability to build trusting and productive relationships.
4. Emirati Communication Style
Leveraging your communication style in line with how Emiratis share information will help you deliver messages in the best way possible.
5. Emirati Business Culture
Mastering Emirati business culture in areas such as negotiation, meetings, team-work and management, will give you the best chance of influencing business outcomes.
6. Etiquette and Taboos
Adhering to socially acceptable behaviours will help you make a good impression and become a trustworthy business associate.