With its thriving economy, dynamic business landscape, and political stability, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the best places in the world for doing business. And since around 89% of the population is from outside the UAE, it’s also a great place to look for remote talent as it’s one of a growing number of countries now offering digital nomad visas.
The diversity of the UAE population also makes it one of the more Westernized Arab countries — however, there are still many cultural norms and business practices that might be different from what you’re used to.
In the UAE — which comprises seven Emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai — business culture plays a pivotal role in shaping relationships, negotiations, and overall success in the corporate world.
Therefore, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the nuances of UAE culture and business etiquette that will help you be culturally sensitive and build meaningful business connections in the UAE.
With that in mind, here are ten things you need to know about UAE business culture.
Islam is the cornerstone of UAE culture and profoundly influences its business practices. Most Emiratis are Muslim, so familiarizing yourself with the principles of Islam will help you establish trust, cultivate relationships, and avoid inadvertently offending anyone.
Islamic principles, such as honesty, integrity, and fairness, underscore all aspects of business dealings. Upholding one’s word and delivering on promises are highly valued traits that contribute to building trust and lasting partnerships in the UAE.
The concept of “Barakah,” a divine blessing believed to bring prosperity and success, is also deeply ingrained in business practices. Embracing ethical conduct and being charitable in business endeavors are seen as ways to attract Barakah while fostering positive growth and goodwill in the business community.
Since Islam is the cornerstone of UAE society and culture, respect for religious customs is essential. Many of your business counterparts uphold Islamic practices, such as the five daily prayers and fasting during Ramadan. Businesses often accommodate prayer times and adjust schedules during the holy month of Ramadan to honor these practices.
During Islamic religious festivals, like Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice), it’s customary to extend greetings and well-wishes to colleagues and business partners. Being mindful of these religious observances demonstrates cultural sensitivity and enhances business relationships.
Religious holidays have a significant impact on business operations in the UAE. For instance, during Ramadan — a month of fasting from dawn to sunset — working hours are reduced, and the pace of business may slow down. Many companies operate with shorter business hours to allow employees to break their fasts and engage in prayers.
Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are joyous occasions celebrated with grand festivities. Business activities may pause during these times as families come together to celebrate. Understanding and respecting these holiday periods is essential for effective planning and scheduling in the UAE business environment.
Embracing these aspects of UAE culture can help you build a favorable reputation and strengthen connections within the business community.
Each of the Emirates is ruled by a local ruler — or shaykh — so it’s perhaps unsurprising that hierarchy plays a pivotal role in shaping business dynamics in the UAE.
Traditional hierarchical structures are prevalent in companies and organizations, with clear lines of authority. Decision-making processes often involve higher-level management, and their input carries significant weight in final outcomes.
It’s crucial to recognize and respect these hierarchical structures when engaging with UAE businesses — for instance, Emiratis enter and exit rooms and greet each other in order of rank. Therefore, it’s essential to do your research and know the position of each person you’re meeting so you can greet them in the correct order.
The standard greeting throughout the Middle East is “As-salaam Alaikum,” to which the response is “Wa Alaikum Salaam.” This translates roughly as “Peace be upon you,” “And upon you be peace.”
In team settings, while there may be a sense of camaraderie, it’s still essential to maintain a level of professionalism when addressing colleagues. Using first names may be acceptable, but it’s always best to follow the lead of your Emirati counterparts.
In 2019, supermodel Bella Hadid angered many people in the UAE and Saudi Arabia when she posted a photo of her foot pointing toward both countries’ flags. So what’s the big deal with feet?
Well, throughout the Middle East, it’s considered extremely insulting to show the soles of your feet or shoes to anyone, as it can imply that the person is ‘lower than dirt.’ Therefore, it’s best to keep your feet firmly on the floor during meetings with Emirati business contacts. Avoid crossing your legs, as it could lead you to point your foot at someone without meaning to.
What about hands, then? In the UAE and throughout the Arab world, it’s considered extremely rude to use your left hand to shake hands, offer or accept something, or eat.
Therefore, when doing business in the UAE, make sure you use your right hand for pretty much everything. The ‘right is best rule’ is deeply rooted in Islamic culture and even applies in situations as diverse as who should leave an elevator first or who to greet first in a room (if no one senior is present).
In UAE business culture, the way you dress and present yourself is more than just a matter of personal style. It reflects respect for tradition, cultural norms, and professionalism. Understanding and adhering to dress code expectations in various business settings is crucial for making a positive impression and gaining credibility in the UAE corporate world.
Traditional dress in the UAE holds immense cultural significance and is an integral part of Emirati identity. For men, the customary attire is the “kandura” or “dishdasha,” a flowing, ankle-length robe typically worn with a headpiece called a “ghutra” or” “keffiyeh.” Women traditionally wear the elegant “abaya,” a loose-fitting cloak, often complemented by a headscarf called a “shayla” or “hijab.”
While foreigners are not expected to wear traditional Emirati dress, it can be seen as a sign of respect for the local culture and is sometimes encouraged for special occasions and official events.
UAE’s business dress code can vary depending on the industry and company culture, although, in general, you should lean toward modesty and professionalism.
Here are some dress code guidelines for different industries:
In corporate and government settings, men are expected to wear business suits or formal attire. Ties are common but not always required. Women should opt for conservative and sophisticated business attire, avoiding overly revealing clothing.
Some workplaces adopt a more relaxed dress code, allowing business-casual attire. For men, this may mean wearing collared shirts or dress shirts with slacks. Women can opt for dress pants, skirts, or dresses that adhere to modesty norms.
In certain traditional sectors, such as finance or law, adhering to formal business attire is the norm. Men are expected to wear suits, and women should choose conservative yet elegant clothing options.
In more labor-intensive industries, such as construction or oil, practical and comfortable clothing is common. However, even in these settings, modesty and cleanliness are expected.
Friday is a holy day in Islamic cultures, so in the UAE (and most of the Muslim world), the standard working week runs from Sunday to Thursday — a fact that can sometimes take Westerners by surprise. The core working hours are generally from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, with a one-hour break for lunch around midday.
Remember that during the holy month of Ramadan, working hours may be reduced for both Muslims and non-Muslims. The government and many private companies adjust their schedules during this period, with shorter work days to accommodate fasting and prayer routines.
To optimize your chances of successful meetings and appointments in the UAE, consider the following tips:
Muslim people pray five times a day, and these prayer times are strictly observed. It’s best to avoid arranging meetings that coincide with these prayer hours.
Since there is a one-hour lunch break in the afternoon, it’s best to avoid scheduling meetings during this time. Emiratis generally use this break to recharge and have lunch with colleagues or family.
During the holy month of Ramadan, business activities may slow down, and people may have reduced energy levels due to fasting. If possible, avoid scheduling critical meetings during this period.
Given the significance of Islamic holidays and potential work schedule adjustments, it’s advisable to plan meetings and appointments well ahead of time to ensure you can accommodate any changes.
If you’re hiring team members in the UAE, it might seem like a daunting task. Not only do you have to be aware of cultural differences and respect the social norms listed above — you’ll also need to ensure compliance with the country’s employment laws.
Fortunately, you no longer have to jump through the legal hoops required to set up a legal entity in the UAE to hire employees there. An employer of record (EOR) like Remofirst can handle administrative and compliance issues like maternity and paternity leave and benefits so you can focus on your core work.
Check out the Remofirst UAE country guide to learn more.