One of the most difficult concepts for many other cultures to grasp is the need to offer flattery in many business situations. Arabic is a language of hyperbole, where the merits of others are praised and overtly commented upon. Therefore, during the relationship-building process, it is important to offer compliments to your host, his organisation and the Muslim world in general. You, in return, will be complimented. Do not seem distant, aloof or embarrassed if this happens – take the compliments in the spirit they are given.
You may be asked questions which seem overly familiar at a very early stage. Questions about marital status, children, religious convictions and personal wealth are commonplace. If you feel uncomfortable answering such questions, have a ready supply of stock answers at your disposal. Refrain from saying that you are an atheist as this is incomprehensible in a society in which the absolute existence of a monotheistic deity is a given.
People are reluctant to convey bad news to you about any business issues. When this characteristic is combined with natural Arabic hyperbole, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective when being given very positive feedback about any particular proposition.
Do not be surprised if people seem somewhat aggressive in meeting situations. Speaking volubly and with a rising tone shows sincerity. This denotes engagement and interest and is in no way a negative sign. (The ability to converse in this manner is a much-admired characteristic in the region.)
Finally,be aware of the importance of good,strong eye contact. A man’s sincerity and honour can be judged by their ability to look you in the eye. This can be somewhat uncomfortable for those from cultures with much weaker eye contact (many Asian countries) but efforts must be made in this area.
Tips for Trading in United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Remember that, despite its Western feel, the UAE remains an Islamic country and that great respect should be paid to Islamic tradition, beliefs and sensitivities.
More than 80% of the population of the region are non-Emirati and you are just as likely to be doing business with an American or an Australian as you are with a local.
The Emirates consists of seven,separate states which are all slightly different in feel and approach. If you are doing business outside the main centres of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, make sure you do some additional research.
Do not be surprised if local companies are very family–oriented and influenced. Nepotism is a way of life and is actively encouraged. You could find several family members in the same meeting.
Company structures will reflect this family-orientation through a strong sense of hierarchy. Try to find out the hierarchy of your counterpart – and look into who the real decision-makers are.
As throughout the Arab world, age is worthy of respect and honourable visitors will display respect to older people. Is it therefore a good idea to have a few older heads in your delegation?
Do not assume that any expatriate you deal with who works for a local company will be the final decision-maker. It is highly likely that the expatriate (whatever their job title) will need to report to a local senior official for final authority on any issue.
Management style is directional and employees expect managers to lead in a fairly authoritative manner. This can mean that instructions are given in a very direct, even abrupt way.
When in meetings, avoid pointing the soles of your shoes at your counterparties as this could be seen as rude. It is also best to pass any documents, refreshments etc. with your right hand.
Same gender tactility is very common – although public tactility across the genders is very rare and frowned upon.
Meetings can often appear unstructured with no (or little reference to) agenda. People may be present who are, seemingly, nothing to do with your meeting.
Meetings will not always (in fact very rarely) start on time. Levels of lateness can vary from a few minutes up to more than an hour.
Try not to arrange too many meetings on the same day as lack of punctuality, the unstructured nature of meetings and heavy traffic can make it difficult to pack lots of commitments into one time slot.
Arabic is a language of hyperbole. Therefore, it is common for business associates to lavish extravagant praise on each other as part of the all-important relationship building phase of doing business. Don’t feel inhibited to join in this process.
People do not like to say ‘no’ or deliver negative news. It can be very difficult to fully understand exactly how interested people are in your propositions. Only perseverance and patience will reveal the true picture.
Don’t take ‘yes’ to mean ’yes’ every time. It could be being used as a delaying tactic.
Emotional discourse denotes interest and engagement. Don’t mistake loudness and emotion for hostility or anger.
You should endeavour to maintain strong levels of eye contact (same sex) as strong eye contact denotes sincerity and trustworthiness.
Women play a more active role in business than in neighbouring Saudi, although some older, more traditional Emiratis may maintain a significant gender bias.
Dress conservatively, but very smartly. Modesty in dress code is important for women. You will be judged partly on your appearance.
The question,‘Who am I dealing with?’ is also critical when thinking about company structures and how they impact on the interface with any local organisation.
Are you dealing with the subsidiary of an international organisation headquartered outside the UAE? If so, they are likely to be heavily influenced by the approach,processes and methodologies of the parent company – and the key staff are likely to be expatriates.
If, however, you are dealing with a locally owned business you are likely to find that they are family-owned and controlled. Nepotism is a still a way of life and key positions will often be filled by trusted family members. Who can you trust if not your own family? As with most family-owned organisations, the company will be organised along strongly hierarchical lines with the majority of power being held at the top by the senior, usually older, male family members. It is important to try to get access to these key decision-makers, even if you are initially being dealt with by more junior employees.
All major decisions will be made at the top and you will need influence at that level. As all business is family and relationship-based, it is absolutely vital to be prepared to devote as much time and effort as necessary to relationship-building. Every contact within an organisation is important, as you may not be aware of everybody’s connections. A seemingly lowly employee may prove to be a favoured relative of a senior figure and therefore of greater potential help than some other apparently more important contact.
It is also important to find out if the company you are dealing with is Sharia law compliant. If a company is Sharia law compliant, this will mean that the company is subject to the tenets of Islamic law and its actions will be overseen by a Sharia council consisting of appointed Muslim clerics. This Sharia council will monitor the activities of the organisation to ensure that no Koranic edicts are transgressed.
Meetings can be confusing affairs as they are often subject to unforeseen interruptions and alterations. Don’t expect the standard western approach of meeting room, punctuality, agenda, action points etc.
Punctuality is variable in the UAE and a meeting scheduled to start at 10am might start on time but may well start an hour or more late. It is also difficult to predict the end time of a meeting with any degree of accuracy – which can make it difficult to visit the UAE and arrange three meetings in the morning, followed by three meetings in the afternoon. Two meetings a day is probably the safest option.
It is not uncommon to arrive at your meeting to find your host in a meeting with several other people and that these other people could be meeting your host about completely disconnected issues. This process can make meetings very lengthy and it can be a little frustrating if you don’t get the complete attention you feel you deserve.
Some people recommend setting up meetings at the up-market local hotels where you can serve coffee and refreshments – and where you are less likely to be interrupted as frequently! In the UAE, relationships are all-important and meetings will often start with a lot of seemingly trivial small-talk. Do not underestimate how important this relationship building process is to the overall success of your project. Make time to chat – the rewards will flow in the long-run.