If you are a first-time visitor to the UAE, you will soon discover the country’s unique customs and practices, as reflected in the dress code, social behavior, and business etiquette.
Even if you are employed by a foreign company, you are likely to encounter Emirati colleagues or clients, while working in a multiracial environment. Hence, it is important to be aware of the local culture, and to be respectful at all times while staying in the UAE.
Business Etiquette 101: A Guide for Expats in Dubai
For the past decade or so, Dubai has become one of the world’s major business hubs, with many companies establishing their regional headquarters in the emirate. If you have recently become part of Dubai’s business world, then here are some etiquette tips you should know:
1. Dress with style and modesty.
Just like in other countries, business professionals in Dubai are expected to “dress to impress.” You can dress in style — but with modesty, too — and with respect to cultural sensitivities.
For men, a pair of pants, tailored shirt, and tie would suffice for daily office work. On some occasions, you might be expected to wear a formal suit, so be sure to have a set (or two) in your wardrobe.
For women, make sure that your shoulders are covered, while your pants and skirts fall below the knees. If you are non-Muslim, you do not have to wear a hijab (headscarf), unless you are visiting a mosque or any place of religious significance.
2. Be punctual.
Good manners and courtesy are highly valued in Dubai and the Middle East region in general. This includes being punctual and arriving on time for meetings and other business-related events.
Fortunately, Dubai has an excellent transport system, including public and private modes that make it easy to travel around. Of course, traffic can get heavy during rush hour in the main thoroughfares, so make sure that you manage your time well!
3. Greet the most senior member first.
When meeting a group of people, it is customary to acknowledge and greet the most senior person in the room first. This is a sign of respect in the Muslim culture.
4. Know when to initiate a handshake.
Initiating a handshake with a person of the same gender is okay; however, it is best to refrain when meeting someone of the opposite gender. As much as possible, don’t shake hands with a person of the opposite gender unless they extend their hand first.
5. Always use your right hand.
Always use your right hand when shaking hands, eating, or handing over an item to someone, as this is the custom in Muslim culture.
6. Refrain from giving a “nose kiss.”
This “nose kiss” is a customary greeting in the UAE; however, this is done among close friends and associates only. To be on the safe side, refrain from greeting people this way, unless they initiate first and they are close to you.
7. Have a cup of coffee.
If you are attending a business meeting, you are likely to be served kahwa or traditional Arabic coffee. Be sure to accept at least one cup; to refuse would be a sign of disrespect.
As mentioned earlier, use your right hand to take the cup. If there is a waiter standing by to replenish cups, you can signal that you are “finished” by leaving a small amount of coffee in the bottom of your cup, or by gently shaking or tipping your cup from side to side.
8. Carry business cards in English and Arabic.
The official language of the UAE is Arabic; however, English is widely used in business, and you can easily manage if you are proficient in the language. Still, having business cards printed in both English and Arabic is considered a respectful gesture. Once again, when exchanging business cards, don’t forget to give and receive cards using your right hand.
9. Learn some Arabic words and phrases.
As cited previously, English is commonly used in the UAE. However, it wouldn’t hurt to learn some basic Arabic words and phrases. One common phrase is “Insh’allah,” which literally translates to “God willing.” Generally, it is a positive term used by locals and expats.
10. Be patient.
Unlike in most western countries, things may seem “slower” in Dubai and making business decisions could take longer than what you’re used to. This could be because in the local culture, it is considered impolite to “jump right in,” especially when meeting someone for the first time. You need to build rapport and trust first, take time to call (instead of email) clients, and maintain contact with them. Hence, you will need to be patient and to take your time.
11. Engage in small talk.
In relation to the previous tip (being patient), engaging people in small talk is also encouraged. Of course, stick to general topics: the weather, your country of origin, how long you’ve been in Dubai, and other trivial matters. Avoid personal topics, such as inquiring about female family members, as this is a private matter. Ultimately, making small talk about general topics is part of building rapport and trust among colleagues and clients.
12. Be familiar with the working hours.
In Dubai and the rest of the UAE, the “weekend” falls on Friday and Saturday. Friday, in particular, is considered as a Holy Day, the day when Muslims visit the mosque and perform Friday Prayers. Hence, never a schedule a meeting on a Friday. You can set one on a Saturday, but ideally, most meetings are held between Sunday and Thursday.
As for working hours, take note that the public (government) and private sectors operate on different hours. Government offices usually operate between 7:30 am and 3:00 pm, whereas private companies usually operate between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm.
13. Take note of working hours during Ramadan.
During the Holy Month of Ramadan, working hours in both the public and private sectors are typically reduced by two or three hours. By the end of the month, all businesses come to a stop as the UAE (and the Muslim world) celebrates the Eid Al Fitr holiday.
Since business operations tend to “slow down” during this month, it would be best to schedule major business events and meetings outside this period.
14. Practice cultural sensitivity.
A huge portion of the working population in Dubai are expats. In fact, it’s not uncommon to have 20 different nationalities in the same company! This gives you a great opportunity to learn about different cultures — including languages, traditions, and interesting cuisines.
Indeed, you will enjoy the multicultural diversity of Dubai. At the same time, you will need to be culturally sensitive as well. In doing so, you become respectful of other people’s cultures, especially those whose beliefs are very different from yours.
By keeping these tips in mind, you are now ready to be part of Dubai’s diverse business community. By being aware and respectful, you are bound to get along with everyone!
And speaking of etiquette, if you are a single person seeking to find someone special and hoping to establish a serious relationship, please take note of these dating etiquette tips for expats in Dubai.