Any expat doing business in the UAE will find themselves one foreigner in a sea of many. The vast majority of the country's population is made up of those from abroad and, as a result, the working world is a mosaic of multinational influences.
The UAE is a relatively easy country to do business in, and this has been reflected in many international business surveys. Most notably, the country was ranked an impressive 16th out of 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. The UAE was ranked in first place for getting electricity and third for dealing with construction permits.
Business customs and practices in the UAE vary from one company, colleague and client to the next, and the most important preparation an expat can make is to be flexible and understanding. That said, it's also important to remember that the UAE is a Muslim country, and Emirati businessmen will still take their mandate from Islam and Arab culture.
Business hours in the UAE can vary. The work week runs from Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday as designated days of rest. Offices generally open somewhere between 7.30am and 9am and close at 5pm; however, the oppressive heat of summer has inspired some companies to implement a ‘split shift’ schedule that includes a three- to four-hour break in the afternoon and extended evening hours. There may also be frequent breaks during the day for Muslim prayer times, so expats should expect and be patient about these interruptions. Working hours during the month of Ramadan are shortened by two to three hours.
Arabic is the official language of the UAE, but English is widely spoken in business.
Business attire in the UAE is generally formal. Women should dress modestly, keeping arms and legs covered. Traditional Islamic attire is not necessary. Local businessmen may wear Western attire or a dishdasha, a flowing robe seen at nearly every type of occasion.
It is not necessary to give gifts to business contacts in the UAE, but a small token with personal significance is not inappropriate.
Men and women are treated equally in business, although senior executive positions are still dominated by men.
A handshake is the usual greeting between men. Placing one's right hand on one's chest after shaking hands marks a sign of respect. If greeting a woman, wait for her to extend her hand first. More devout Muslim women may not be comfortable shaking hands with men, and while dress may be an indicator, there is no easy way to gauge this beforehand. The best practice is to allow female business associates to offer their hand first.
Business culture in the UAE
Despite its cosmopolitan veneer, business culture in the UAE has its roots in Arab values and traditions. Along with respecting the all-encompassing effect religion has on everyday activity, expats will need to realise that relationship-building is paramount in the working world.
Communication and relationships
Foreigners looking to successfully do business in the UAE must acquaint themselves with the importance of building relationships. Emiratis do business with people they trust, and initial business dealings will always be devoted to getting to know each other. Some smaller, family-owned businesses may only grant access to decision-makers once a connection with junior members has been forged. Expats should budget time for this endeavour and should take care not to rush into negotiations.
It's also important to note that verbal agreements carry significant weight in the UAE. Be mindful of what is said, especially when it comes to agreements, conditions and refusals. That said, haggling is a common practice, so be prepared to engage in some good-natured negotiating.
Expats may be surprised to find that punctuality is not always observed and it is not uncommon to be kept waiting on occasion. As family takes precedence in the Middle East, meetings may feature frequent interruptions and disturbances, so patience is expected. The Arabic greeting of 'Salaam Alaikum' is used instead of 'hello' and relationships built on politeness are pivotal to success in the professional world. Dates in documents should be detailed in both Gregorian and Hijrah dates.
Attitude to foreigners
Business culture in the UAE is welcoming to foreign investment. Expat business owners are required to be respectful of Islamic culture and tradition; however, they are not required to practise it themselves.
Dos and don’ts of business in the UAE
Always dress conservatively and wear a suit and tie
Don't rush into business talk. Emiratis prefer to get to know their business associates before any real negotiations can begin.
Respect Islamic religious and cultural practices. Although foreigners are not expected to practice the religion, they should be mindful of the impact it has on everyday life in the UAE.
Always arrive on time, though locals may be late
Don't use the left hand to eat or gesture to another person
Have one side of a business card translated into Arabic