Setting up a business or conducting business in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a bit of an eye-opener for many Westerners, whether men or women. It’s not like doing business in the United States, for example. In the UAE, many businesses are family-run affairs. So you’ll likely have dealings in the first instance with junior members of the family involved in the business. Only when sufficient trust has been built up will you be allowed anywhere near the boss. Unusual, but that’s simply how it is.
As you seek out contacts, a business partner or even business financing in the UAE to help you kick-start any venture, you’ll often find meetings a rather chaotic affair. Again, that’s nothing unusual in this part of the world. But don’t worry about it. Accept it. A good case in point is timekeeping. You set up a meeting and turn up at a pre-arranged time. Then you wait, and wait and still nothing. If the meeting is with a government official, you could end up waiting for a very long time indeed before being invited in.
Whether it’s about banking, partnership opportunities or business finance, don’t cut to the chase moments after you sit down. Not advisable. That’s how not to begin a business meeting, at least in the UAE. Instead, indulge in a bit of non-contentious chitchat, perhaps about the traffic or the weather, and graciously accept the tea or coffee which will almost certainly be offered. And yes, expect to be interrupted by telephone calls and members of the family popping in unannounced. Don’t react and certainly don’t show any annoyance or displeasure. This is simply the way business is conducted in the UAE. One further but very important point – don’t bring up the subject of politics or religion. Not recommended!
Watch the way you dress, too, says culture and communication skills consultancy Communicaid, who have advised some of the world’s leading businesses and organisations about how to conduct themselves in the Middle East.
Communicaid says, “Business dress in the Middle East is modest. For businesswomen it is wise and even necessary in some countries to dress conservatively from head to toe in order to be accepted by business counterparts. While dress varies among countries, many women in the Middle East wear head scarves or veils, but it is not usually required of foreign women. In Israel, business casual dress is acceptable most of the time.”
Communicaid has compiled a handy list of dos and don’ts when conducting business in the Middle East:
DO be aware that Middle Eastern people tend to use a closer physical proximity when communicating than Westerners. Though you may not be comfortable with this close distance, it can be perceived as impolite if you back up.
DO show respect towards your Middle Eastern business associates by taking a sensitive approach to appropriate behaviour and cultural gestures. Using the left hand to pass something, drinking alcohol or eating pork while in the presence of your Middle Eastern colleagues should be avoided.
DO dress suitably and in a conservative manner. This is especially important for businesswomen, who must wear modest clothing that covers the arms and legs in particular. A headscarf is also advisable.
DON’T criticise your Middle Eastern counterparts in front of other business colleagues, as this may cause a loss of face and harm the individual’s sense of honour.
DON’T schedule business meetings during the holy month of Ramadan if at all possible as business activity tends to be reduced. Ramadan is a major Islamic tradition that includes fasting for an entire month. Although foreigners are not required to fast, it is considered impolite to eat or drink in front of others during this time.
DON’T give the “thumbs up” sign while in the Middle East as this is considered to be an offensive gesture.
DON’T inquire too much about a male colleague’s wife or female relatives. To a traditional Arab male, this is not considered a topic for public conversation.