Business etiquette in the UAE

Time Out's tips for adapting to business culture in the Middle East

The Knowledge

I recently moved to Abu Dhabi from Europe and started a new job working in an office. I expected a few teething problems, but even after a few months I just can’t get my head around the business etiquette. I wouldn’t consider my professional background particularly formal, but I sometimes feel as though people are just being rude! One colleague chats on his mobile all the way through my presentations, but no one else seems annoyed. Have you any advice?

A less formal approach to business is possibly the most difficult difference in work culture to understand. This is sometimes hard to get your head around as an expat, because the etiquette in some respects will be the polar opposite to what you are used to.

First of all, it’s not just your colleague. People will take mobile calls in the middle of meetings, and might walk out while you are speaking in order to attend to family matters or different business dealings. When this happens, you’ll just need to be patient – it’s not intended to be in any way disrespectful. The reason is that business acquaintances are often considered more like friends than associates, because business relationships in the UAE are frequently developed on a long-standing basis of trust. Therefore, it’s considered more impolite to ignore a call from someone than to briefly interrupt a meeting.

So, if you’re used to a particularly strict working environment, you may find you need to take things down a notch or two here. It’s also quite normal for numerous last minute changes to be made to appointment times and locations, but that isn’t an indication of your business associate not taking you or the meeting seriously. The same goes for work attire – most Western gents don’t wear a suit jacket here because of the heat. A shirt and tie for men is the norm, and a blouse and below-the-knee skirt or trousers is usual for women.

As for watching your own manners, here are a few hints and tips you might find useful. Only offer a handshake to a member of the same sex. Practices vary, and some Muslim men will shake hands with Western women, but it’s best not to offer just in case you cause embarrassment. In terms of making your meetings go smoothly, you’ll be considered more sociable and polite if you take your time over the tea or Arabic coffee which will inevitably be offered, and make plenty of effort with the small talk. It’s all part of building trusting relationships. And, by the same token, a hard-nosed, combative approach to business negotiations won’t go down too well. Focus on making a good deal rather than squeezing every drop out of the transaction and you’ll find yourself better off in the long term.

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