This guide provides a brief introduction to the etiquette of doing business in the United Arab Emirates.
Meeting & Greeting
Status is important and must be recognized by using the correct title when addressing someone. It is customary to use Sheikh (chief) (or Sheikha for a woman), Sayed (Mr.), Sayeda (Mrs.), etc. Arabs generally address people by their first names, so John Smith will be addressed as Mr. John.
It is important to greet and acknowledge the most senior person in the room first.
When doing business in the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. For a man introduced to a woman, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. Particularly in public, Muslim women are unlikely to shake a man’s hand. A Western woman introduced to a Muslim man might also wait to see if he offers his hand.
Always use the right hand. Among Muslims, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered unclean. The right hand should be used for eating, shaking hands, or handing over an item.
Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere. Holding hands among men is common and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West.
Many people in the Middle East claim a more modest area of personal space than is usual in the West. Accordingly, it can seem rude for an individual to step away when another individual is stepping closer.
Special respect is paid to older people in many circumstances. This can include standing when older people enter a room, always greeting older people first, standing when speaking to one’s elders, and serving older people first at a meal.
In terms of gift giving, something personal can be a very meaningful touch. It would be appropriate, although not expected, to present a small or token gift to an individual to whom one is being introduced, say for example a book one has written or very much enjoys, a special company memento, or something related to one’s background or hobbies. However, it is not advisable to give a pen or a clock just for the sake of providing a gift. Very senior leaders may or may not provide a gift although it would not be required for one to provide a gift in return.
Gender & Attire
Men should avoid touching and prolonged eye contact with Muslim women.
It is considered improper to inquire about a man’s wife or daughter. It is polite to ask about family or health, but never specifically about any female members. Family life that involves female members is kept extremely private.
The modesty of one’s personal attire is important in the Middle East. Men and women should wear very non-revealing clothes (covering shoulders, arms and legs, and closed-toe shoes) to avoid offending locals.
When visiting religious sites, women must also cover their hair.
In some circumstances shoes should be removed, such as at the entrance to religious sites.
Business is Personal
In the Middle East, doing business revolves much more around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honor. It is therefore important that business relationships be built on mutual friendship and trust. As a consequence of this, if you have friends or contacts in the right places, rules may be bent or things may be done more quickly. The system works on the basis that favors are reciprocated and never forgotten.
Initial meetings are all about relationship-building – building trust and establishing compatibility. One should engage in conversation and try to get to know the person with whom one is doing business.
Age, money, and family connections are all key determining factors of a person’s status. Who you are is usually more important than what you have achieved. It is therefore not uncommon to find many members of one family working for the same company.
In conversation, it is always good to ask about the health and well being of a counterpart’s family. How many children? (Do not ask how many wives?) What are the children doing? Where have they studied or about to study? Taking interest in a counterpart’s family is an important way of building early trust and connection.
Meetings & Negotiations
The working week generally is Sunday through Thursday.
Punctuality is expected of Westerners – even if it is not practiced by locals. Attitudes to time are more relaxed than in the West, therefore it is not unusual to be kept waiting, though Westerners will be expected to be on time.
Meetings are almost always accompanied by coffee and pastries. Hospitality is held in high regard throughout the Middle East, and people will take great pride in lavish shows of hospitality. To refuse it can cause offense. It is proper etiquette to accept beverages offered and to compliment the host on the food and his hospitality.
One should never show the bottom of one’s shoes when sitting in a meeting. This is a sign of great disrespect and is a common mistake by Westerners during meetings. As a general rule, displaying the sole of one’s foot or touching somebody with one’s shoe is considered rude.
Meetings can be chaotic. Always be prepared to exercise patience. Cell phone calls, emails or text messages are taken during meetings and people may enter the meeting room unannounced and proceed to discuss their own agenda.
The Arabs were traditionally a trading people and are excellent negotiators and haggling is prevalent from the market to the board room. Decisions are made slowly. Bureaucratic formalities tend to add to delays.
All of the Gulf countries, including the UAE, Jordan, and Kuwait, are Muslim countries, as is Egypt. Insulting Islam or the prophets is a serious offense.
Muslims follow the doctrines of the Koran, which forbids consumption of alcohol, pork products, and shellfish. It is best not to consume these in the presence of government or religious officials. It is also prohibited to drink alcohol in public.
Muslims pray five times a day. You will likely hear the calls to prayer, which occur roughly at:
- between dawn and sunrise
- about half an hour after mid-day
- right after sunset
- an hour and a half after sunset
People in the Middle East may communicate with a vocal emphasis, volume and body language that others might associate with being angry or upset.
Responding to anger or seriousness with light laughter or a smile is common. This must not be seen as a sign that the other person is not taking you or the situation seriously.
The customary greeting is “As-salam alaikum,” (peace be upon you) to which the reply is “Wa alaikum as-salam,” (and upon you be peace).
Goodbye is “Ma salamaa”
Please is “Min Fudlek” and thank you is “Shukran”
“Inshallah” means “God willing” and is a common response when agreeing on next steps or a particular course of action.