The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed in 1971 when Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, and Umm al Quwain came together after gaining independence from Britain. In 1972, Ras al-Khaymah joined the federation, and today the UAE is located in the Middle East, bordered by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf between Oman and Saudi Arabia. The country has undergone rapid growth from a quiet backwater at the time of independence to one of the Middle East's most important economic centres.
Despite the small population of the UAE, with an estimated 11% being Emirati, it is a melting pot of diverse ethnicities due to the high number of expats and tourists. The largest ethnic group in the country are South Asians from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
In 2022, the UAE government changed the working week for government employees from Sunday to Thursday to Monday to Friday. Muslim men are expected to attend the mosque during the Friday midday prayer.
For visiting business professionals who intend to work in the UAE, it is essential to have an elementary knowledge of Islam. Islamic beliefs and practices impact on the rhythm of the business day, how business is conducted, and how well you are accepted by your local business partners, customers, and colleagues. The following are the key Islamic values to keep in mind:
Family - The obligations to family are of utmost importance to Muslims, more important than work. This includes the extended family. Family obligations may often be the reason why someone doesn't meet you on time.
Honour - Personal and family reputation is essential in the Middle East. The actions of an individual reflect not only on themselves but also on their family. There is a high motivation to avoid losing face as it can sometimes lead to compromising one’s honour.
Courtesy - It is important to remain courteous, even if you become frustrated by circumstances. Confrontational behaviour or arguments are considered rude and will cause someone to lose face. Therefore, it is important to control your reaction.
Hospitality and Generosity - As a visiting business professional, you will be treated as an honoured guest, and many courtesies will be extended to you. Never refuse these gestures of hospitality, such as an offer of coffee.
Insh'Allah - This means "God's will" and is a reference to the fatalistic attitude of Muslims who believe that events are ultimately determined by Allah. It's generally an indication that the speaker intends to do what they say, if nothing else gets in the way or becomes more important. If it does, then it happened because of God's will. The other party should not be offended and can expect the situation to be rectified as soon as God wills it to happen.
Ramadan (Sawm) is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with the Shahadah (declaration of faith), Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity), and the Hajj pilgrimage. Ramadan is a lunar month of fasting, prayer, community, and self-evaluation observed by Muslims worldwide. The month lasts 29-30 days, depending on the sighting of the new moon.
Muslims observing Ramadan will practice the following: No food, drink (including water), smoking, vaping, chewing gum or anything else passing the lips during daylight hours. In addition to fasting, Muslims will also try to avoid all bad thoughts or deeds. They may also choose to pray more often. All Muslims who have reached puberty are expected to fast during Ramadan. There are exemptions for many groups of people from fasting, including those with health issues, pregnant women, and travellers.
During Ramadan, business hours are reduced by law, and Muslims are protected from working for more than six hours per day. The hours of operation may vary depending on the nature of the business and the number of Muslims within the organisation.
Business culture in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
When working with UAE-based counterparts, it is important to understand that most expatriates come from various parts of the world, and it may not necessarily include Emiratis. The style of business encountered will depend on many factors, such as ownership, line of business, senior management attitudes, mix of nationalities, layers of business partnerships, quality of organisational and personal relationships, and priorities.
Nevertheless, relationship building is a crucial aspect of successful business, and it is important not to lose sight of building trust by taking the time to get to know your business contacts. Consistency in behaviour and fulfilling commitments are also essential to building trust.
It is also important to understand the management style of the organisation you are working with, especially as non-Western businesses can be hierarchical and may expect their employees to respect this structure. Business in the UAE is more informal than it once was, but the government sector remains formal and protocol-driven.
Business etiquette remains important, especially with more traditional businesses. Always have business cards with you as the ritual of exchanging business cards remains respectful. Use your right hand only and treat all cards you receive with respect. Keep them on the table in front of you.
Handshakes are the norm but be aware that some people will not shake hands between genders. If in doubt, wait for the other person to take the lead. Handshakes will vary in duration, strength and even who you greet in sequence depending on the specific culture of the organisation.