Arab Cultural and Business Etiquette in the UAE

Arab Cultural and Business Etiquette in the UAE

An awareness of Arab culture and the business etiquette of the Middle East are essential to successful professional interactions in the UAE. An understanding of culturally appropriate business and personal behaviour could not only help avoid an embarrassing faux pas or, worse, giving unintended offence, but will also smooth businesses dealings. James Swallow of PRO Partner Group shares some pointers for your initial contact with local business people in the UAE.

Establishing a relationship is vital Personal relationships are the foundation of a successful business association in the UAE. When starting a business or even conducting research into a business opportunity, personal contact and face-to-face communication is key. Far more can be achieved through a personal meeting than over the phone or via email. Wherever possible try to set up a face to face meeting and get to know the person first, before discussing business.

Tapping into the close networks of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are important to accessing a particular business or industry. Often employing a local contact or consultant can put you in contact with the right person and save you significant time, effort and money.

The development of trust and rapport with local business contacts takes time and should be factored into your business planning.

The Business week in the UAE In the UAE, the work week runs from Sunday to Thursday with many organisations operating on Saturday. Government offices usually open Sunday to Thursday from 7.30am until 2.30pm but it is a good idea to look up each business or government entity on line or call them to check. During Ramadan, business and government offices working hours will be considerably shorter by at least two hours, with most business conducted in the morning.

Punctuality is appreciated but may not be reciprocated. As a sign of respect to your host make sure you turn up to meetings on time but your local counterpart may be half an hour or more late. It is best to anticipate this and schedule extra time for meetings as they may start late, run longer than expected and be interrupted. This is not a lack of respect, just a different cultural norm.

Language and business cards Arabic is the official language of the UAE, although English is widely used in business. Out of courtesy, it would be wise to get your business cards printed in both Arabic and English and check that all words and images on your card translate well to Arabic without giving offence.

While most business correspondence is in English, Arabic is sometimes preferred, especially in the public sector. Sourcing a translator or being accompanied by someone who speaks Arabic is advised, your local embassy and local contacts are a good place to start.

Greetings Each person in a business meeting should be greeted individually, starting with the most senior person first. A handshake is the most common form of greeting. Wait for a local woman to extend her hand first as conservative women may choose not to shake hands. A business woman meeting a local business man should also wait for them to initiate the hand shake.

Arabic phrases Learning a few phrases in Arabic will be welcomed and appreciated. Being able to say hello, goodbye and thank you may surprise and delight your host, as many assume that foreigners will not have learned any Arabic before arriving.

Meeting etiquette Meetings are an opportunity to build business relationships and trust. Most local business men and women may engage in small talk before a meeting asking about such things as your health and family before the purpose of your visit or the meeting is even brought up. It is expected that you will also ask about their family in general terms and having a few anecdotes and questions ready is advised. This part of the meeting is very important as it allows your host to get to know you better, develop a personal relationship and most importantly builds mutual trust.

The most senior person in the room will usually introduce and lead the formal business discussion which may take a more circular route than you are used to. Again, patience is important. Don’t try to rush negotiations and make sure that any feedback is respectfully given as it highly offensive to directly criticise or directly disagree with a local business person and will cause them deep embarrassment. Disagreements may be resolved using a non-confrontational, more subtle approach. Using phrases such as,

“In order to progress it may be better to……’ or “I believe that in the past …….has worked well and may be our best course to move forward”.

Locals are also unlikely to disagree directly with you so as not to cause you embarrassment. It can therefore be difficult to ascertain where you are in negotiations. It is always best to follow up a meeting with an email to make sure you are all on the same page.

Take multiple copies of all printed material used in the meeting to be passed on to other decision makers in the organisation.

Arabic clothing Business attire is expected and men should wear a suit and tie. Women should dress in a fairly conservative fashion ensuring their shoulders and knees are covered. Your local hosts will most likely wear their traditional dress of kandora and ghutra head covering for men. Local women will wear an abaya (a long flowing dress over their clothing) and a shayla head covering. Traditional dress and a head covering for women are not expected of foreigners.

Hospitality Arabs are very hospitable and likely to offer you refreshments, gifts and invitations as a sign of respect. During a meeting, be sure to accept refreshment if offered. If you are invited for a meal, it is polite to accept and then reciprocate the offer. It is usual that the person who has issued the invitation will pay the bill.

An invitation to a local’s home is a great opportunity to build a relationship which can aid your business dealings. A few things to be aware of are: • Be on time but don’t expect to eat immediately • Take a small gift of appreciation • It is normal for men and women to eat separately • Follow the instructions of your host and watch for signs of custom such as the oldest person in the room sitting and being offered food before the rest of the party • Conversations should be polite, stay away from politics and religion and only refer to business if your host does first

How do I get more information? PRO Partner Group help many businesses set up in the UAE and can provide invaluable advice and expertise when navigating the Arab culture. For assistance with starting a business in the UAE, or expanding a global company, contact us for further information.

If you would like to speak with James from the PRO Partner Group or one of his team please contact: +971(0)2 448 4810 or email

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