Business Etiquette Around the World: United Arab Emirates

If you haven’t already traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), chances are you may find yourself there within the next few years.  According to the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA), the business travel market to the UAE is expected to double in value by 2020, reaching nearly $1.4 billion. Here are our top etiquette tips for navigating business in the UAE:

United Arab Emirates

The modesty of your clothing is extremely important in the Middle East – for women and men. Be mindful not to wear revealing clothes (including open-toed shoes) and to cover your shoulders, arms and legs.

Men: A suit and tie is appropriate. Darker colors are viewed as more professional.

Women: Wear either a suit or a skirt with the hem below the knee. It’s not necessary for non-Muslim women to wear the hijab, or headscarf, unless you plan to visit a religious site during your trip.

Note: You may be approached by locals (such as security guards, colleagues, etc.) if they deem your clothing choices inappropriate. If this happens to you, stay calm, politely apologize, and head back to your hotel to change into something more modest.  Keep in mind – it’s best to err on the safe side and pack your most conservative clothing options.

Acknowledge and greet the most senior person in the room first – doing so is a sign of respect in the Muslim culture. It’s appropriate for non-Muslims to greet their Arab hosts with “assalamu alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you” and return the greeting with “wa alaikum assalam,” meaning “peace be upon you, too.” When exchanging business cards, it’s best to give and receive cards with your right hand.

Bonus tip:
Have the other side of your business card translated into Arabic – this will help make a great first impression.

Men: When greeting a man in a professional setting, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Be sure to only use the right hand as Muslims reserve the left hand for bodily hygiene and consider it unclean. Don’t be surprised if a colleague holds your hand while leading you to a meeting room – holding hands is common among men and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West. It’s in your best interest not to approach a female Muslim colleague with a handshake or any other form of a physical greeting – there is little to no touching between men and women during greetings in public.

Women If you’re being introduced to a Muslim man, wait to see if he extends his hand. If not, refrain from initiating a handshake. If you’re meeting another woman, wait for her to greet you – often times, a kiss on the left cheek is acceptable.

Initial meetings are all about relationship-building and developing trust. It’s important to get to know the individual with whom you’re doing business. In conversation, it is always good to ask about the health and well-being of a counterpart’s family (being careful not to directly ask a question about a wife or daughter).  Appropriate questions include “How many children do you have?” and “Where do they study?”

Status is important and must be acknowledged by using the correct title when addressing someone. It is customary to use terms such as: Sheikh (chief) (or Sheikha for a woman), Sayed (Mr.), Sayeda (Mrs.), etc. Keep in mind that Arabs generally address people by their first names, so John Smith will be addressed as Mr. John. Islam is deeply ingrained in the United Arab Emirates and casual conversations are peppered with religious expressions, such as “in’shallah,” which means “God willing.”

Helpful hint: It’s also a good idea to make an effort to learn some additional key words prior to your trip – doing so will help make a good impression.

Observant Muslims do not drink alcohol. In the UAE, alcohol is served in most hotels but may not be available in local restaurants. If alcohol is not offered, it is better not to ask for it. You should also never refuse food or an additional helping during dinner as it is considered bad form. A few additional rules to remember:

      • Do not ask for pork or pork products. Muslim tradition frowns on consuming pork.

      • When finished eating, leave your utensils facing upward in the middle of your plate.

      • Lefties, take note: eat with your right hand only.

      • If you’re hosting dinner and are responsible for the bill, it’s expected that you tip 10 percent over and above the service charge.

  • If you’re invited to dinner at a Muslim colleague’s home, be sure to remove your shoes at an appropriate spot and set them aside in an orderly fashion prior to entering. (Of course, unless your host asks you to keep them on.) Remember – Islam is a religion of cleanliness and courtesy, and wearing shoes is often seen as dirty and a sign of disrespect within the walls of a home.

It is appropriate, although not expected, to give a small token or gift to your host upon introduction. Suitable gifts include an enjoyable book or a company memento. Keep in mind; something personal can be a very meaningful touch – therefore, a gift related to your host’s background or hobbies is an even better idea.

Meetings & Negotiations
Middle Easterners often have a relaxed attitude when it comes to business meetings and may arrive late. It’s important not to follow suit as punctuality is expected of Westerners. Refreshments such as coffee and pastries are commonly served at meetings – remember, it is proper etiquette to accept what you’re offered and to compliment your host on the food and his hospitality. Other notable tips:

      • Though it may seem like an odd rule of thumb, be careful not to show the bottom of your shoes when sitting in a meeting. This is a sign of great disrespect and is a common mistake by Westerners.

      • Meetings can be chaotic, so always be prepared to exercise patience. Cell phone calls and/or text messages are often taken during meetings and people may enter the meeting room unannounced and proceed to discuss their own agenda.

      • Decision-making can be slow and bureaucratic formalities tend to add to delay – keep this in mind throughout your business transactions.

Do you have any other business etiquette tips you’d like to share about the United Arab Emirates? Let us know in the comments below.

Safe Travels!