Companies have realised that in order to get ahead in today’s global economy, cultural awareness is critical. So what are the do’s and don’ts when doing business in the UAE?
We often hear that the “world is getting smaller” and in a global economy this definitely rings true, however, as we get closer, our cultural differences become more acute and often more of a problem when doing business.
The UAE has positioned itself as a business and transit hub between East and West, with many international companies having established their headquarters in Dubai. However, Middle Eastern culture sharply differs from Europe or North America.
“The Middle East is a relationship driven culture and in the end the role personal relationships play, is the deciding factor in whether or not business is done,” according to Jan Bladen founding COO of the DFSA, the financial services regulator of the DIFC.
A self-confessed nomad, Jan grew up (in part) in Algeria, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Tunis, where drinking tea, offering Eid greetings and escaping the summer heat was the norm. He believes that there are only a few expatriates who truly appreciate the importance of cultural respect, tolerance and understanding in this part of the world. Jan exemplifies the definition of a Global Citizen; born in the Netherlands to British parents, married to a Lebanese Arab, fluent in three languages, raised in 11 countries, and holds both British and Swiss citizenship.
“As a ‘third culture kid’ (defined as someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time being raised in one or more cultures other than their own), you become a natural cultural chameleon,” said Bladen.
Adding that he “intuitively” adapted his behaviour and manners to those of the culture around him. “I run my business operations as a Swiss and my business relationships as an Arab. Operational efficiencies are crucial for present performance while investing time into building and nurturing long lasting respectful relations is the foundation to all other aspects of my life in the Middle East.”
“In the West it would be perfectly reasonable after a brief personal introduction, to discuss business. This is simply not the case in the Middle East,” says Bladen.
“Time is required to get to know one another and to work out if a relationship and trust can be nurtured. This may even require many meetings over tea. Simply trying to get “down to business” in the first instances of a first meeting is seen as rude and pushy,” he added.
“In the Middle East, there is a tendency to become friends first and then to do business with a very small contract, if any, as someone’s word is considered enough (although this is slowly changing). This would make most expatriates nervous of doing business this way. But to become too insistent on contracts and deadlines could backfire as this could be considered as a lack of trust in your business host,” he explained.
Meanwhile, time keeping is not necessarily of primary importance, unlike in other parts of the world, says Bladen.
He explained, “Arriving 15 to 20 minutes late for an appointment will be considered, by some, as very normal. Westerners need to adjust their mind set, as this is not an insult or an offense, rather simply common practice.”
“I actually find myself unconsciously remembering what nationality I am going to meet, and adjust my time keeping accordingly. (But don’t get it wrong … I would hate to imagine arriving 20 minutes late for a meeting with a Swiss!).”
“Sitting in your first meeting in the Middle East, noticing your Arab business host answering his mobile phone, sending text messages during the meeting and even greeting other guests whilst being ensconced in business dealings, should not come as a surprise. Be patient in meetings and allow for distractions and long delays.”
Jan recalls being invited to a private dinner meeting, mid-week, by a very high UAE government official where dinner did not commence until 11pm and at 3am his spouse advising him not to leave the table until the dinner host decided that dinner was finished. Arab society is very hierarchical and most decisions, if not all, usually come from the top.
Jan said that he doesn’t believe that you can truly understand a culture by taking a cultural understanding course or reading a book. You need to entirely immerse yourself in it. “I married into a large traditional Arab family and can honestly say that my social circle include more Arabs than Europeans. But despite all of this, I only now sense that I am just starting to understand Middle Eastern culture, its history, its people and its values.”
So what would Jan’s advice be to anyone wishing to do business or get ahead in the UAE? “Go have coffee or tea with your Arab colleague or friend, and look at what unites different cultures rather than what divides them and explore the cultural riches of other nations and nationalities. Learn with a passion for understanding, rather than the drive for wanting to “do business”, and “business” will eventually follow with trust and relationships … naturally.”
So be prepared to invest a long time and build relationships. Doing business in the Middle East is based on trust.