Brief Guide to Working in the UAE
Time Zone: GMT+4 Currency: UAE Dirham (AED) Currently £1 = 7.424AED Weekend: Friday & Saturday. Many businesses open on Saturday. Business Hours: Government offices are open from 7:30am to 2:30pm Saturday to Wednesday. Banks are opened from 8am to 1pm from Saturday to Wednesday and 8am to 12pm on Thursday. General businesses work between 8am to 1pm and again between 4pm to 8pm from Saturday to Thursday. Shopping malls are open throughout the day while some supermarkets are open around the clock. Survival The three essential qualities for survival are patience, resilience and a sense of humour. Also important is a willingness to adapt, especially with regard to local attitudes to timekeeping, business negotiation, and bargaining. Displays of anger or extreme impatience are usually seen by Arabs as demonstrating a lack of self-control and indeed of self-respect. This applies particularly in situations such as on the road when Western norms often tolerate quite rude and aggressive behaviour. No matter how poor you think the other person’s driving is or how badly you think they have cut you up, you should never retaliate by shouting or, even worse, making a rude gesture involving hands or fingers. In many Gulf States, such gestures can land you in jail. Timekeeping and schedules In the Gulf, attitudes to timekeeping are generally more relaxed than in the West. Personal or family matters tend to take priority over business affairs. This said, it would be prudent for Westerners themselves to be reliable in their own timekeeping while exercising tolerance with regard to local norms. When visiting the Gulf, do not expect to be able rigorously to follow a pre-arranged schedule. Appointments and events are fluid in this region and people are seen as being far more important than time. Expect last-minute changes and don’t be flustered by them. If visiting a VIP, anticipate that you may be kept waiting or that the visit itself may be postponed or even cancelled at the last minute. This should not be seen as indicating rudeness – rather, it reflects a different approach to the importance of time and schedules. Instead of rigid adherence to schedules, what is valued much more among Gulf Arabs is flexibility, patience and adaptability. When an important meeting eventually takes place, be prepared for lengthy preambles and a lot of general small talk before the main issues are addressed. Indeed, if the Arab Gulf host senses that the timing is not right, s/he may choose to avoid addressing these issues at all. This can be frustrating for Westerners. Remember, however, that if the timing is not right, success is unlikely. It is therefore
better to wait until the right moment presents itself than to rush in (perhaps because of a pre-arranged schedule) and spoil the result. In many parts of the Gulf, the weekend is on Thursday and Friday. However, in other parts, such as the UAE it is now Friday and Saturday. As a rule of thumb, do not expect to do any business at all on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and be prepared that both Thursday and Saturday could present scheduling problems. Therefore, for safety, aim to do the bulk of your business between Sunday and Wednesday. Attire General: Dubai is very relaxed/liberal and Sharjah the more conservative. Men: Dark business suits, plain shirts, conservative ties, black shoes. This will do throughout the visit and in all of the places we’re visiting. It is essential that shoes are smart and clean at all times. Women: No need to cover hair (as might be the case in Saudi Arabia). For business meetings, business suits are appropriate provided that they are not skimpy or revealing. Best to avoid low or plunging necklines and to cover arms and legs for important functions. Plain business shoes should be worn. For evening social functions, the same applies but bright colours may be worn if desired. Local women tend to wear ballroom-type dresses. Shoes for the evening may be open or closed and can be quite ‘dressy’ if desired. ‘Off-duty’ attire in Dubai can be similar to that generally worn in the UK. In Sharjah, the norms are rather more conservative. It is not obligatory for women to wear suits in business, but smartness is considered usual. There are no hard or fast rules, however, and many expats, especially those from other Middle East countries such as Lebanon bend the rules frequently to appear more individual in business. Note: Remember to pack sunglasses: you will need them when travelling by road. Sunglasses should be removed in offices and at meetings. Greetings Men are expected to shake hands with male hosts on greeting and on departure. However, they should never shake hands with Arab Gulf women unless the woman first extends her own hand. Similarly, a Western woman should exercise caution in extending her hand to be shaken by a Gulf male – some Gulf males will politely demur as they believe that to touch a woman who is not a relative shows a lack of respect for the woman concerned. This is, literally, a touchy area and the key thing to remember is that the norms are very different and Westerners should not take offence too easily when they are confronted by the unexpected. Always shake hands with the right hand – the left is considered unclean. Words of greeting are mandatory, and the process of greeting generally takes considerably longer than most Westerners are accustomed to. It is normal to enquire after the male host’s health and even that of his children (only if you have met them or he has previously talked about them with you) but it is usually considered inappropriate to ask after the health and wellbeing of his wife. In this respect, women have more freedom as in a similar situation they may without offence enquire after
the host’s wife’s health (but note that if the host is a woman herself, a Western woman could also give offence by asking after the host’s husband!). Names An Arab’s name is usually in three parts: the given name, the father’s name, and the family name (e.g. Ahmed (bin) Abdullah Al-Dossari or Mariam (bint) Abdullah AlDossari). It is common practice to address business colleagues either informally by their given name (e.g. Ahmed or Mariam) or, in a more polite or formal context, by using a title such as Mr/Dr/Professor Ahmed or Mrs/Dr/Professor Mariam. Whereas it is not uncommon also to refer very politely to an individual by their given and their father’s name (e.g. Ahmed (bin) Abdullah or Mariam (bint) Abdullah), it is not usual to use the family name alone (e.g. Mr Al-Dossari or Mrs Al-Dossari). Be prepared therefore to be addressed by your title and first name (e.g. Professor Mary or Dr Robin). This does not show any disrespect; on the contrary, it is the usual polite form of address in the Gulf Arab states. Resistance to this custom may appear clumsy and patronising. Bad news Gulf Arabs tend to try to avoid being the bearer of bad news. As a result, they usually prefer to give no response to a request rather than to give a negative response. This sometimes explains an apparently excessively lengthy delay in responding. Alternatively, they may seek to ensure that the bad news is delivered via an intermediary. Men and women One of the trickiest areas for Westerners unused to living in the Gulf is that of the roles of men and women. To many Westerners, it may appear that women are severely repressed and that intervention is urgently required to remedy this situation. However, many more seasoned observers will note that women enjoy quite privileged positions in many ways and are treated with a great deal of respect, arguably more than in many western countries. Although it is still customary for women to be escorted in public places either by a male relative or by an older female relative, many Gulf Arab women (outside Saudi Arabia) have their own cars and travel freely to and from work or their place of education. The great majority of Gulf Arab women in public dress very modestly and cover their hair in line with standard Islamic practice. The wearing of the veil (niqab) in public is very common in Saudi Arabia and other conservative states such as Sharjah but much less so in, for example, Dubai and Oman. Nevertheless, even when a woman is not veiled, it should not be assumed that she is a non-Muslim nor that she is likely to behave significantly differently from women who are veiled. Whatever one thinks about this admittedly contentious area of male/female roles, it must be recognised, first, that practices differ considerably from one Gulf state to another (with Saudi Arabia as usual being the most conservative and Dubai probably the most relaxed); and, second, that Gulf Arab men and women have a much clearer idea of the ‘differentness’ of their respective roles than is the case in most western
countries, where gender ‘equality’ has perhaps sometimes tended to be equated with ‘sameness’. It appears that in most Gulf Arab homes, women wield considerable power and in many cases seem to be the dominant force. However, in terms of most outwardfacing aspects of domestic life, it is the male members of the family who continue usually to be expected to represent family interests. With the rapid spread of educational opportunities for women as well as for men, especially in countries such as the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, women are now able to choose from a wide range of career paths in those countries and are already making a major contribution to the workforce. Even Saudi Arabia too is slowly changing in this regard. When a male non-Muslim is invited by a Gulf Arab either to a business function or to a home, it should not be assumed that his wife or female partner is also being invited. When genders are reversed, a woman’s husband or male partner is highly unlikely to be included in an invitation from a Gulf Arab woman to her home. It is therefore wise to make very discreet enquiries in advance as to the guest list and to establish whether the gathering is expected to be single-gender or mixed. Close physical contact Gulf Arab men are often seen holding hands, and this merely denotes friendship. However, men and women do not normally hold hands or indeed have any form of close physical contact in public. Kissing between members of the same sex is normal when Gulf Arabs greet each other but kissing between men and women in public is generally forbidden and may result in prosecution for a public order offence. This does not apply to adults greeting young children of the opposite gender. Any form of sexual encounter between men and women outside marriage is forbidden in Islam and is illegal in the UAE. However, in practice, Westerners are likely to be treated with far greater tolerance in this respect than would be the case if an Emirati was involved. Islam forbids homosexual relationships. Privately, most people acknowledge that such relationships exist. Publicly, such matters are rarely if ever discussed, and never condoned. Right and left Generally, the right is seen as far more important than the left. A distinguished guest will always be expected to sit on the host’s right. In the same way, when going through doorways, the order is always from the right. Therefore, a polite host will always position themselves so that the guest is on their right to go though the doorway and so that the guest goes through first. This sometimes involves considerable jockeying for position as one approaches the doorway. If you yourself are the host to a Gulf Arab, always try to ensure that s/he is positioned on your right to go through a doorway and that s/he goes through first (however much s/he may demur). It is considered inappropriate to serve food or to transfer food to one’s mouth with the left hand (even if one is left-handed). Similarly, the left hand should never be used for
handing out or receiving anything. Shaking hands with the left hand is permissible only if it is evident that the right hand is incapacitated in some way. Fingers It is considered very rude to point with a finger at a person or to beckon using a finger. Instead, the whole hand may, if necessary, be used. Obscene finger gestures are likely to land the deliverer in jail. Feet When in the company of Gulf Arabs and sitting on a chair, try to avoid sitting in such a way that the soles of your shoes are pointing directly at other members of the company. To be safe, it is best to sit with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Avoid crossing your legs as this may cause your foot to point in a wayward direction. If sitting on a carpet, try to sit with your feet tucked under or behind you so that, again the soles of the feet, are not facing another member of the company. Coffee and tea Gulf Arabs regard it as essential to offer visitors some refreshment, usually coffee and tea, often accompanied with water. It is considered polite to accept (even if you really don’t feel like drinking anything!). The coffee and tea may not be to your taste but it is essential not to show this. It is customary to accept a second cup. When declining a further cup of coffee, shake the cup by rotating it slightly between index finger and thumb. Otherwise, you may find that the cup is constantly replenished (to your certain embarrassment!). Alcohol Alcohol is banned in Sharjah and in Kuwait. It is widely available in Dubai, including at the Airport Duty-free (on both exit and entry). When in the presence of Muslims, it is normally courteous to refrain from drinking alcohol unless it is evident that they have no objection. No alcohol will be served at either of our main functions (Sharjah and Dubai). Pork and pork products The Qur’an forbids the consumption of pork and pork products. Pork or pork products should never be served or indeed discussed in the company of Gulf Arabs. Diet Vegetarianism is not common among Gulf Arabs and is therefore often not well understood. Veganism is even less well understood. However, hosts will generally be very accommodating once they understand the issues. There are a number of vegetarian restaurants now in Dubai, and many organic food outlets where vegetarian/vegan food can be obtained. However, in eating out it is advisable to preorder at restaurants if there is any doubt.
Medication No specific requirements. No specific jabs required before the visit. Pretty well all medications are available across the counter in pharmacies. Note 1: Codeine is banned in the UAE and penalties for possession can be very harsh. Note 2: Tapwater is drinkable but salty. Bottled mineral water is cheap and widely used. Mobile phones Everyone resident in the Gulf is expected to carry a mobile phone and to be contactable on it. Temporary visitors to the UAE who do not have roaming facilities can purchase a pre-paid package which may be sufficient for the duration of their visit. There are two service providers: Etisalat and Du. Du now offers a 3-month SIM pack which is affordable and obtainable with a photocopy of your passport photo page and visit stamp page. Although it is generally preferred that phones are switched off during meetings, it is very common for them to ring and for meetings to be interrupted in this way. If this happens, guests should not display annoyance or impatience. Note 1: International telephone connections in hotels are excellent but very expensive. Note 2: The international dialling code for the UAE is +971. Etisalat mobile numbers are prefixed with 050. Internet The majority of top class international hotels in the UAE now offer broadband internet, though this is often at a premium cost. Wifi is available in most international coffee shops for free with a purchase, including some Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caribou, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outlets. Internet in MEO is available by Wifi throughout the office and Exeter colleagues are most welcome to use the facilities. Personal Security Many westerners feel much safer in the UAE than in the UK. The one obvious exception to this is on the roads, where driving norms and standards are ‘interesting’. Electricity and electrical goods The same voltage and plug type are used as in the UK. Photography Exercise caution when taking photographs. It is prudent to ask permission first, and absolutely essential if taking photographs of women. This also applies to military installations and major civil ones, such as airports and bridges.
Taxis Taxis throughout the UAE are plentiful and reasonably priced. In Dubai, the metered taxis tend to be best. On the whole, travel by taxi is relatively safe and taxi drivers are generally very trustworthy. You can now order taxis on 042080808 from DubaiTaxi. However, at peak times (between 8am and 10am, and 4pm and 6pm) you may find it impossible to get through. Pre-booked taxis almost invariably arrive ten minutes earlier than the scheduled time and call the number on which the booking was made. Tipping Tipping is discretionary. It is common to round a taxi fare up to the nearest multiple of five. In restaurants, a service charge is often included, and in this case a tip is not expected. Money The ‘dirham’ is used throughout the UAE (and can also frequently be used in other Gulf countries). The current exchange rate is around AED7.414=£1. ATMs are plentiful and UK-based debit and credit cards can easily be used. All major shops and restaurants accept debit and credit cards.