I should begin by pointing out that many businesses in the UAE are European-run and staffed. Equally, there are plenty of Australian and Canadian firms. So, it is possible that you need to know little more about business etiquette than you would in your own country.
There are a lot of multicultural businesses as well, but I think you will want to know about doing business with Arab businessmen and women, particularly Emiratis.
Let’s start with the handshake. Think twice before you offer to shake hands with anyone. You may be trying to be polite, but traditional women (young or old) do not like being expected to shake hands with men.
This is equally true the other way around too. As a woman, you cannot assume that the man you have just been introduced to will see your offered hand as a friendly gesture. An outright refusal can cause offense, so don’t offer your hand first.
Some people make the gesture of putting their arm diagonally across their chest with the palm of the hand flat against the shoulder bones. It is a gesture like something out of Star Trek, but you will get used to it. You can respond with the same gesture and an uneasy moment is dissolved. A simple nod or little bow will suffice, too.
Ironically, shaking hands is very popular between men. I see it more often in the UAE than in other countries. The firm grasp expected in most western countries is not the style here, though. The UAE handshake is a soft touch. This too can be a shock initially, especially if you have gone in with your usual dominant grasp. Practice it a few times at home to get the feel for it.
Arabs set a lot of store by hospitality. As a visitor, your role is to graciously accept what the host offers. Brushing offers of hospitality aside in order to get down to business is not the local way. Time is very elastic in the UAE – everyone has plenty of it.
You will usually be offered tea or coffee. Arabic coffee can be different from what you are used to. There is a fondness for a watery looking coffee that packs a punch, so be cautious or you could end up with a caffeine high that has your hands trembling!
If you do not like the drink or have had enough, leave the cup full. This will not insult anyone.
Sometimes you will be offered a tea or coffee already liberally sugared or laced with cardamom. Do your best even if you find it strange. You are in the Middle East, after all.
You will almost always be offered water as well. Water is so important in the desert, but again, it is not essential to drink it.
Deciphering Insh’allah and other Language Issues
You do not have to be able to speak Arabic to do business here, but it is a good idea to know a couple of key terms. Insh’allah can be spelled several ways, and literally means “God willing.” However, it is used liberally, which often causes foreigners some concern. Generally, you can take it to mean a simple “yes.” This leaves space for unexpected events to interfere, but the general intent is to do whatever has been agreed to.
Al hamdulillah translates to “thanks be to God,” so this is likely to be heard when something goes well.
Many Arabs and Emiratis speak English fluently, but if you are interacting with an older person, you may find yourself in business negotiations with someone who speaks heavily accented English. This person’s language barrier is not likely to be an indicator of their business acumen honed over years and years – therefore, stay alert.
It sometimes seems that many English speaking countries have decided that what was formerly called foul language is now everyday language. Dubai is not part of this sea change. Swearing is rare and swearing in public is against the law. The “F” word is best avoided entirely.
The Speed of Decision Making
Expect business dealings to involve a lot of personal talk.
It is considered polite to ask general questions about the health and wellbeing of a person and their family. Family is very important, therefore it is appropriate to make sure all is well in the broadest sense.
However, do not ask specific questions about someone’s wife unless you are very well acquainted and know this type of inquiry to be welcome. This question and answer session is a bond forming process. Decisions are being made about you based on the way you handle such questions.
Even as you are working at one level of politeness and bond forming, you must be careful not to get too personal. Avoid personal comments on appearance (this can be extended to family members as well).
Comments on the attractive children in photographs on the business person’s desk or about a scarf or shoe (the things women often notice) can be seen as being envious or wanting the object admired. Many Arabs are superstitious, especially about the evil eye. What might be polite admiration to you may be seen as an attempt to draw the evil eye by others.
After the polite chitchat, it is not unusual for an abrupt decision to be made. Be ready for this, and to respond if it is not the decision you anticipated.
Negotiation Will Be Anticipated
While it is considered rude for business to begin (or requests for signatures to be made) without social communication, there is also an expectation that you will negotiate where necessary. Arabs are renowned business people for a reason.
They seem to be able to start successful businesses at the drop of a hat, and enjoy the cut and thrust of the business world. You will be expected to enter into this world.
Negotiations can get heated, but don’t take it personally. It is all part of the process. Tempers can flare, voices get raised, and then all resolved before you have even worked out what the flash point was. Roll with it.
It may be a new environment for you. If you are prepared, and know what you expect in terms of the business agreement, it should resolve well as long as you negotiate firmly.
In the end, if you have reached agreement but nothing has been signed, you can rely on a person’s word.