Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a bustling global city known for its ultramodern skyscrapers, and more than 170 nationalities, attracts millions of business travelers every year. As with any international travel, understanding the UAE law, local customs and etiquette can make your business interactions and trip smoother, and more successful.
I have often been disappointed by the online articles I could find about rules in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, its neighbor city and the capital of the UAE. They are either incomplete, wrong, or not adapted to a business audience.
For tourists visiting Dubai on business or for leisure, or the millions of expatriates in the UAE, the federal law is the same. It applies as well to tourists at the Dubai airport, on their way to their final destination.
This article explores some critical aspects of cultural etiquette in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that every business traveler should know.
Greeting Etiquette in Dubai
In Dubai, the typical greeting is 'salaam alaikum', meaning 'peace be upon you.' The expected response is 'alaikum assalam', which means 'and upon you, peace.' It is crucial to always greet and pay your respects to the senior in the room before greeting everyone else. Additionally, Arab men usually offer a softer handshake. 'Inshallah' means God willing and is often used as response upon agreement on future cooperation.
If you want to know more arabic expressions to use while doing business in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, read our article and discover the words that can make a difference.
When it comes to interacting with the opposite gender, it's best to wait for them to initiate a handshake. When a man is being introduced to a woman, he should wait to see if she extends her hand towards him first. It is not customary for Muslim women to shake a man’s hand in public settings. When a Western woman is introduced to a Muslim man, she also should respectfully wait for him to make the first move instead of extending her hand first in a greeting.
Understanding the Work Culture in Abu Dhabi and Dubai: Weekends and Ramadan
In Dubai, the workweek typically runs from Monday to Friday, since a change in law that meant to align Dubai with global Western cities it trades with. Nite that Friday noon stays the time of the weekly Jumuaa prayer. As such, if a business partner or client asks to meet at another than this time, you now know the reason.
During the holy month of Ramadan, working hours are usually shorter as most Muslims people observe fasting. As a sign of respect, it's advised to limit public displays of affection, not to eat, drink alcohol, or smoke in public places during daylight hours during Ramadan. But remember Dubai municipality is an international city, and as such, many places such as Dubai Mall now stay open during day time to business tourists and residents, allowing one to continue its activity without restriction, except alcohol consumption. The use of illegal drugs, consumption of liquor in public areas, is punished by local law.
Tipping Culture in Dubai
Contrary to the United States, tipping is not obligatory in Dubai, but it's certainly appreciated. It's customary to tip restaurant staff, taxi drivers, hotel employees, and other service providers. The usual tip is 5-10% of your total bill.
However, it's important to note that tipping is not about the amount, but rather a way to express gratitude for good service. Also, do not be surprised if service charges are included in your bill in some restaurants.
Time in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Dubai residents value their time, and punctuality is a virtue appreciated in all business dealings. Whether it's business meetings, reservations, or social engagements, being on time is important.
However, if your local counterparts are late, you may not consider it as a lack of respect. In fact, they may consider it impolite to abruptly end their previous meeting and will ask you to be patient, knowing they will probably offer you the same patience, as part of the local business culture.
Nevertheless, if you're running late, remember to communicate this to the other party. A simple phone call or text message can help manage expectations and maintain professionalism.
Politeness and Directness
Dubai citizens and residents are known for their politeness. Direct communication is often perceived as impolite, so it's better to be tactful and courteous in your interactions. Using phrases like "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" can go a long way in creating positive impressions.
Doing business in the Middle East has a lot to do with personal relationships and traditional values, like family, trust and honor. Therefore it is essential for business relationships be based on meaningful friendships. Unless you're a woman, the rule is that it is considered improper to inquire about a man’s wife or daughter.
People in the United Arab Emirates, and the Middle East are famous for their great hospitality. Never refuse a beverage or pastries during a meeting or else where as they are an important part of every social gathering. You should kindly thank your hosts for their hospitality and compliment the food and drinks you have been served.
From your side, a small personal gift is a nice touch and – as long as it is meaningful – absolutely acceptable. It can be a gift from your country, but be sure to choose something that cant be deemed offensive.
One of the most common mistakes Western business men do is sitting in a way that the bottoms of their shoes show, e.g. by placing the ankle of one leg over their other knee in a nonchalant manner. In the Middle East this is a sign of great disrespect. Also, never touch anyone with your shoe. In case this should unwillingly happen, apologize sincerely.
All Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are Muslim. Always keep in mind that insulting or questioning Islam or the prophets is a serious offense, just as it is with any other religion.
The official and national language of the UAE is arabic, with English being spoken as a second language. Even if most of business meetings are held in English, it is still a good idea to learn a few words of Arabic, as a sign of respect and trust, if you are to meet with Emirati partners.
Photography and Social Media Etiquette
Dubai offers countless stunning views, but it's essential to be mindful about where and what you're photographing, even in some of Dubai best places such as Burj Khalifa or the Dubai Mall.
Dubai law has strict law against unsolicited photography, and taking pictures without permission is considered a breach of privacy. The same applies to social media posts that could be considered offensive or injurious towards the country, a religion or individuals.
Laws in Dubai: A Blend of Federal and International Legal Frameworks
Navigating the legal landscape of Dubai offers a glimpse into the city's unique mix of traditional regulation and progressive frameworks designed to promote international business and investment by foreign companies.
Firstly, at the federal level, the UAE Constitution provides a broad legal framework that governs all seven Emirates, including Dubai. For instance, the UAE Penal Code (Federal Law No. 3 of 1987) applies across the entire UAE and governs crimes. One example of what it commands is its stringent laws against bribery and corruption. This provision underlines the country's commitment to a transparent and accountable governance structure.
On the other hand, in a bid to attract foreign investment and facilitate business activities, Dubai established free zones that operate under their own legal jurisdictions. These zones offer businesses the advantage of full ownership, tax-free operations, and a legal framework that's often aligned with international law, while protecting employees under the federal employment law. Two prominent examples are the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM).
The DIFC is a global financial center and operates under a unique legal and regulatory framework. The DIFC's legal system is based on English common law, offering a familiar and reliable legal environment for international businesses. Furthermore, DIFC has its own courts, with judges from various common law jurisdictions, providing an independent administration of justice.
Similarly, the ADGM in Abu Dhabi has its own legal framework, modeled on the English common law. It's designed to facilitate ease of business for financial institutions and has been recognized for its strong, responsive regulatory environment.
Navigating the cultural landscape and UAE law for new expats or when visiting Dubai can seem complex, but once you understand the local customs and etiquette, it can enrich your experience and make your business interactions more successful.
Remember that respect and understanding for local customs and practices are key to successful business engagements in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. With these tips in mind, you're ready to make the most of your business travels in Dubai.
The emirate often suffers from misconceptions, til you visit Dubai for the first time. We break 25 of these here if you want to know more.