Despite its cosmopolitan veneer and large number of expat workers, in the most part business culture in Dubai has its roots in Arab values and traditions, so it’s important to take a flexible and respectful approach.
While business customs in Dubai can differ from company to company, building a strong relationship is essential, with Emiratis rarely doing business with those they don’t already know and trust. Around 90% of businesses in the Middle East are family-owned and here business often revolves around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honour.
It’s also worth noting that as the UAE is a Muslim country, many people in Dubai look to Islam and Arab culture for guidance, even when it comes to business dealings.
Despite the often searing heat, business attire is always formal. A suit and tie are mandatory for men, while women should dress modestly, keeping arms and legs covered at all times and wearing closed-toed shoes.
When meeting and greeting in Dubai, status is key and it’s important that you acknowledge senior and older attendees first. Be sure to address people correctly, it’s customary here to use their title, such as Sheikh or Sheikha (Chief), Sayed (Mr.), Sayeda (Mrs.), followed by their first name.
Handshakes are the common form of greeting, although unlike business in the west, these can last a long time and it’s polite to wait until the other person withdraws before moving your hand away. In some cases Muslim women may not shake hands with the men in attendance and on being introduced, western women should wait to see if a hand is extended by male business associates before extending their own hand. As the left hand is considered unclean among Muslims, you should only offer your right hand.
Business cards are usually exchanged at the start of a meeting, following the formal greeting, so it’s essential you carry some with you.
You may find that your business associates in Dubai have a slightly more modest approach to personal space and it’s not uncommon to find someone standing very close to you or leading you by the hand in a business environment.
How to close a deal
When arranging a meeting in Dubai, you must consider that the working week generally runs from Sunday to Thursday, so don’t try to see people on a Friday, which is a day of prayers and rest.
While it’s not unusual to be kept waiting on arrival, it’s important to be punctual yourself and patient and polite at all times.
As hospitality is held in high regard almost all meetings in Dubai are accompanied by coffee and pastries. Follow etiquette by accepting food and beverages offered and complimenting the host on their hospitality.
The emphasis on early meetings will be on relationship and trust building, often with junior members of the family or team in attendance, rather than more senior figures.
As age, money and family connections are all key factor when it comes to status, business meetings often start with informal conversations which can be quite personal. Show a reciprocated interest in the family life of people you are doing business with, asking polite questions about their children’s activities and education.
While meetings can start on an informal note, be prepared for them to suddenly pick up momentum. Some deals can be done very quickly, while other decisions are made slowly, often due to bureaucratic formalities.
To achieve success in Dubai, you must never turn your back to someone when you are talking to them, as this is seen as dismissive and rude and showing the bottom of your shoes when sitting in a meeting is also seen as a sign of disrespect.
Haggling is common practice, so be ready for some good-natured negotiating and as verbal agreements carry weight in Dubai, be very mindful of what is said when it comes to agreements, conditions and refusals.