My first intercultural blunder happened in Dubai where I gave a presentation on the importance of cultural competency in academia. One of the participants approached me and since my right hand was holding my laptop, purse, and notes, I instinctively extended my left hand to greet. When the gentleman did not extend his hand, I presumed it was because I was a woman. My subsequent blunder happened in Abu Dhabi in a meeting with one of the professors. We had already met the evening before at a dinner hosted by the conference organizers, so I greeted him: “Good morning Ali, how are you?” His body language quickly let me know he didn’t approve of my greeting.
Welcome to the United Emirates
A world where innovation, state-of-the-art architecture and technology meet tradition and conservatism, The United Arab Emirates consists of seven states: Abu Dhabi and Dubai who are the most famous, followed by Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaiwain. The Emirates, especially from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, live in a multicultural society and are comfortable dealing with western businesspeople, especially since 80% of the population consists of foreign nationals. However, it is critical to remember that behind the feel of “Westernization”, the influence of Islam is present in all daily interactions. To successfully navigate in business in the Emirates, one must understand there is no separation of religion, life, and business; religion and traditions are everywhere.
Here are several best practices to help you understand the culture:
Organizational structure – The United Arab Emirates is a hierarchy-oriented culture. As such, age, status, and rank is respected and is showcased in how organizations operate. The decision-makers top the pyramid, and as is the case with the many family-owned organizations, those decisions come from the head of the family. It is important to understand early on who they are.
Multi-cultural interactions – As the UAE is a multi-cultural society, it is highly likely you will find yourself interacting with a VP from America or from another western country, and as such you should have basic knowledge of their business culture. Moreover, there are many western subsidiaries who have set up shop in the UAE, and should you want to do business with them, you will do well to learn the culture of the parent company as the organizational culture will have an impact on how business is conducted and how decisions are made.
Interacting with local organizations – Most locally owned organizations are family-owned and centralized with key positions distributed to family members. Therefore, it is especially important to build relationships even with mid-level managers as you may not be aware of their family connections.
Building personal relationships and trust – The UAE is a relationship-oriented culture; therefore, it is imperative to build and maintain relationships as a preliminary to doing business. Building a relationship is building trust, contrary to American and German task-oriented cultures where the bottom line and signing a contract takes precedence over building relationships.
Synchronized communication – If you want to have a productive discussion, a phone call is preferable to an email. The Emirates favor face-to-face communication over written.
Implicit communication style – Note that “Yes” can be “maybe” and a straight “no” is considered impolite. It is advisable to ask open-ended questions that will not require a yes or no answer. Furthermore, it is important to “save face” with all communication conducted in a harmonious and non-aggressive style.
A fluid business agenda – The agenda will often be fluid and non-linear. They see this as a way of being creative, and partly a way of judging your mood, temperament, and likelihood to do business. Switching from business to personal matters in the middle of an important point is a way of relieving tension and diffusing the atmosphere. Similar to Israeli culture they feel comfortable interrupting in midsentence and speaking over one another.
Patience is the name of the game – The pace of business is slower, and decisions take longer. Expect a lot of talking. The Emirates, like the Israelis, are emotional communicators and you can expect exaggeration, poetics, and florid language, in their communication style. In addition, the Emirates are highly risk-avoidant, unlike the Israelis who are used to ambivalence and feel comfortable taking risks in business. As decisions will be made at the top with the input of several persons, and sometimes even with foreign advisors, the decision-making process is slow.
The secret to successful negotiations – A successful negotiation process is based on two parameters: building a relationship and price. To do business successfully you need to tap into the central network that defines the UAE business scene. Build your connections and use them to your advantage. Identify the key people in the organization and negotiate with them while always remembering to respect the position and status of that person. Having said that, the price will always prevail. Know the price of your competitors as yours will be compared to them. Remember what your bottom line is and hold to it. If you compromise, you will lose. The contract is only a preliminary outline that is open to further negotiations. When an Emirati gives his word, that is essentially his commitment to the transaction.
Women in business – If you thought that the reactions to my blunders were based on me being a woman in the UAE, note that women are respected and welcome in the business scene. You may learn from my cultural blunders, that one never extends their left hand and one does not address another with their first name unless having been given permission to do so. Good luck!
Article published in Globes