Business etiquette

Personal relationships are a foundation for any business partnership, but that is especially true in the Arab world.

Be prepared to invest the time to get to know potential trading partners and form a bond before embarking on negotiations. Expect to have several meetings characterised by small talk. A hard-hitting, high-pressure approach won’t be welcomed.

Ranked

# 12

(in a survey of 63 countries by the IMD World Competitiveness Center)

Dining and business are often mingled, so there may be dinner invitations too. It’s courteous to accept any food and drink offered at meetings.

The informality of meetings is often a surprise to newcomers. Also, be prepared for meetings to last longer than expected. Interruptions and diversions, such as making phone calls during meetings, may be common. However, this is not intended to offend.

Greetings

Greet each of your Emirati counterparts individually. It’s polite to greet the oldest or most senior members of the group first, so try to research the positions and titles of those who will be present.

The customary greeting is ‘As-salam alaikum’ (peace be upon you). The reply is ‘Wa alaikum as-salam’ (and upon you be peace).

Handshakes are the normal form of greeting, but ensure you use only your right hand.

Members of the same sex who know each other well often greet warmly, with embraces. However, greetings between the sexes can be more difficult: men should wait for Emirati women to extend their hand first.

Dress code

Businesss dress is conservative in the UAE. Regardless of the heat, men should wear a suit and tie; women’s dress should be smart and modest, with arms and legs covered.

Negotiations

While initial negotiations are likely to start at a more junior level, it’s important to be aware of who will be the final decision-maker. Given the family-based nature of many businesses, the head of the family generally has the final say.

Emirati people usually avoid direct criticism. Disagreements are often glossed over. Be aware that what might seem like evasiveness is often an unwillingness to say ‘no’.

Business cards

Business cards should be printed in Arabic on one side and English on the other.

Sealing the deal

Avoid high-pressure tactics to try to finalise a deal, as these won’t be well received.

Verbal deals are honoured in the Arab world and a reciprocal commitment is expected. Once an agreement is in writing, it should be passed by a lawyer before signing.

Entertaining

Business is often conducted over lunch or dinner, generally in a restaurant. It’s considered polite to return the invitation. Later, there may be invitations to the family home too where you can expect meals to be lengthy and sociable.

In more conservative families, Emiratis will not eat with people of the opposite sex, especially in restaurants.

In a restaurant setting, or sit down dinner with cutlery, emiratis would eat with the fork/spoon in their right hand and the knife/fork in their left hand.

Golden rules

  1. 1

    Expect the unexpected

    Make appointments at least a couple of weeks in advance, and confirm them a day or two beforehand. Last-minute changes are not uncommon as priorities move. Also remember that meetings can become lengthy, so try to remain patient and courteous.

  2. 2

    Accept hospitality

    It may be considered discourteous to refuse food or drink when offered. At meetings, Western-style tea or coffee may be served, or alternatively a sweet, milk-free tea or a light Arabic coffee flavoured with cardamom. Accept at least one cup.

  3. 3

    Observe gender etiquette

    Besides the etiquette over handshakes with the opposite sex, be aware of casual personal contact too. Maintain eye contact with people of the same sex – but remember that men should not make prolonged eye contact with women, or compliment them on their appearance.