Managing in the United Arab Emirates
Finding the Balance Between Old and New
The sun has just risen, turning the desert sky a brilliant red. As you open the window, you hear the beautiful, atmospheric Muslim call to prayer begin. It's so arresting that you can't help but listen.
Another day is dawning in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE.
The UAE is a country that many Westerners find exotic, alluring, and perplexing, all at the same time. Religious practices play a major role in business and relationships; and navigating the balance between old and new is essential for success in this ancient – yet up-and-coming – culture.
In this article, we'll look at the strategies and etiquette that you need to know to manage a team successfully in the UAE.
The UAE is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. As such it's essential that you keep an open mind, stay flexible, and treat everyone as an individual. You can use this article as a general guide, but customize your approach to account for the wide differences in culture, attitudes, and beliefs that you'll encounter.
Language and Culture
The UAE is located on the Persian Gulf, bordering Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. It's a federation of seven emirates, each ruled by an emir (a general or prince). A national president rules all seven emirates.
The seven emirates are: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. Each differs in its attitudes and dress. Some are quite liberal, while others are very conservative.
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates.
The two largest cities in the UAE are Abu Dhabi (which is the capital) and Dubai. If you're working in the UAE, you'll likely be in one of these cities. Although Arabic is the official language here, English is widely spoken. In the larger cities, most signs and menus appear in both English and Arabic.
The UAE's culture is incredibly diverse, in large part because of the country's tax-free salary policy. The economy in the UAE is driven by its enormous oil reserves.
Only 13 percent of the UAE's over nine million people are native Emirati. The rest of the population consists of other Arabs, Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Thais, Australians, and Westerners, just to name a few!
Islam and traditional Arabic culture have an enormous impact on the life, culture, and attitudes of people living and working in the UAE. Religious beliefs and practices have a big impact on business here, unlike in the majority of Western countries. For instance, Muslims pray five times a day. As a manager, it's essential to show respect and sensitivity to this custom, so be aware of this when scheduling meetings.
The UAE is quite liberal and tolerant of other religions, compared with some other Middle Eastern countries. Although the country is a melting pot of cultures, there's relatively little ethnic strife or tension.
Employment Practices and Laws
As a Muslim country, the weekend is generally considered to be Friday and Saturday, and the workweek begins again on Sunday. The Islamic Holy Day is Friday, so it's important to avoid scheduling any meetings or overtime work on this day.
There are two types of "shifts" worked in the UAE. Some organizations adopt a straight shift; this means you start work anywhere between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and work an eight-hour shift with a one-hour lunch break. If your organization adopts a split shift structure, you generally start work at the same time but have a three- or four-hour midday break.
Hiring and Firing
Local Emiratis hold fewer than two percent of jobs in the private sector. Because of this, the government strongly encourages organizations to hire nationals before they hire expats or foreign workers. Some industries – such as banking and insurance – have quotas in place for hiring certain numbers of Emirati.
Laws are currently changing; the government is now trying to regulate the private sector and require an increase in Emirati hiring. If you're responsible for hiring, check the policy of your local emirate's government.
The holy month of Ramadan is one of the most important Islamic holidays in the UAE. The dates of this holiday change yearly, based on the lunar calendar.
Muslims fast (with no eating or drinking) from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. By law, Muslim employees have shortened workdays this month. Often, they work very early in the morning and late at night after they have broken the fast.
It's important to know when Ramadan takes place when you're managing in the UAE. It's a serious breach of etiquette to invite anyone to lunch or dinner during the day, or to offer any food or drink.
Most restaurants, cafes, and bars close during daylight hours, but, at sunset, people gather for a large feast called Iftar. Even non-Emirati take part in these celebrations.
Other public holidays in the UAE include:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Milad un Nabi (Birth of the Prophet Muhammad) – (November 20 in 2018; November 9 in 2019.)
- Lailat al Mi'raj (Night of Ascension) – Date changes each year (April 13 in 2018; April 3 in 2019.)
- Ramadan – Date changes each year (May 16 in 2018; May 5 in 2019.)
- Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) – Date changes each year (June 14 in 2018; June 3 in 2019.)
- Arafat (Hajj) Day – Date changes each year (August 20 in 2018; August 11 in 2019.)
- Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) – Date changes each year (August 21 in 2018; August 12 in 2019.)
- Al-Hijra (Islamic New Year) – (September 11 in 2018; August 31 in 2019.)
- National Day – December 2.
Many holiday dates change yearly, depending on the calendar.
Getting the Best From Your Team
The overwhelming majority of professionals working in the UAE weren't born there. Although the government is trying to change this, you'll likely work with an incredibly diverse team, made up of Emirati as well as professionals from many other countries.
You'll need to vary your approach to accommodate this diversity. Use a tool such as The Seven Dimensions of Culture to get a deeper understanding of how people in different cultures are likely to think and would prefer to be treated. You can then customize your leadership strategy, based on the styles that they're likely to prefer. This will increase the sense of trust and communication between you and your team.
Emiratis score highly on Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions "Uncertainty Avoidance" Index. So, if you're working with team members from the UAE, they're likely to have a low tolerance for change, risk, and uncertainty.
You can help your team members to feel more comfortable about a new idea or change initiative by taking plenty of time to explain why it's necessary. If you provide additional data to explain your idea and, most importantly, minimize risk, it will help to gain their support.
Leadership and rules are both important in the UAE. Your team members will look to you for guidance, and they'll follow your instructions to the letter. When you give directions or set goals, be clear about your expectations. Also, don't expect anyone on your team to do more than you ask them to; they may consider it disrespectful to do something you didn't tell them to do.
You might find it challenging to use a Western management style (where everyone is on a relatively equal footing) with Arab teams. Class hierarchy is ingrained here, and these structures can make creating a cohesive team difficult. Do your best to form bonds between team members: use well thought-out team-building exercises to help you.
When you're in the UAE, you'll likely work with many Arabic professionals, even if they're not Emiratis. People from this culture value personal relationships, honor, and trust highly when doing business. Expect to spend a lot of time on relationship building.
Good relationships are critical: spend plenty of time talking to colleagues, team members, and your boss. You can build trust by talking about your family and by working with the honor and integrity they expect.
At the start of a business relationship, people might ask you questions you consider highly personal, particularly about your marital status and income. If you're not used to answering these questions comfortably, make sure that you have some pre-prepared answers ready.
Gender roles are important in the UAE. As a man, take care not to shake the hands of a Muslim woman or make prolonged eye contact with her. Be careful not to engage in public displays of affection, whether in a business or personal situation. Conversely, as a woman, it might be inappropriate to shake hands with Arab men in some instances, even in a business setting. It's best to only shake their hand if they offer it first.
Family life is important to Emerati. Important ways to build trust with your UAE colleagues include asking about their families, and communicating your devotion to your family. However, never ask about another man's wife or daughter specifically; this is a serious breach of etiquette. Emirati keep the life of female family members private.
The UAE's people are known for their kindness and hospitality. If you're invited to someone's home, take care not to praise any item with excitement; as your host might feel obligated to give it to you. If someone offers you a gift, it's considered impolite to refuse. If you're giving a gift, never give any product containing alcohol, pork or other pigskin products, knives, or personal items.
Alcohol is generally only served in hotel restaurants and bars (except in Sharjah, where it isn't served at all.)
Because of the UAE's Muslim culture, dress is important, and, to some degree, people will judge you on your appearance. Dress modestly, especially if you're a woman.
Men should wear smart, conservative business suits and avoid wearing visible jewelry. Jackets and a tie are required for most business meetings, regardless of the heat. Women should always dress modestly when at work. Short sleeves to the elbow are sometimes acceptable, but button your blouses to the neck. Skirts are allowed, but only if they fall well below the knee. Avoid pants and form-fitting clothing. Women should also keep a scarf with them at all times, since mosques and other sites often require women's hair to be covered. That said, less-formal dress may be OK in some business settings, so use your best judgment here.
Dress is a bit more relaxed outside of work in the bigger cities. You'll likely see foreign women wearing shorter skirts and bathing suits at the beaches. However, it's generally a good idea to dress modestly, even outside of work, to respect local customs.
- The UAE is incredibly hot. In summer, the average temperature is above 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit), with an average of 98 percent humidity. In winter, average temperatures are more bearable, at 28 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit). There are also frequent sand and dust storms. Make sure that you drink plenty of water throughout the day, as Westerners frequently suffer from heatstroke or dehydration.
- The cost of living is quite high in the big cities, compared to the rest of the UAE, especially when it comes to housing. Foreigners were not allowed to own property here until 2005, and even now, options for owning property are limited. You'll likely need to rent an apartment during your stay. Rent is generally collected annually in advance, so be prepared for a significant initial outlay when you make this transition!
- Never point, gesture, or eat with your left hand. Emerati consider it unclean.
- Never show the bottom of your feet, such as when you cross your legs. This is considered highly offensive. Never use your foot to touch or move anything.
- Sincere compliments and flattery are an important part of the relationship-building process. When someone compliments you, accept it with grace and don't feel embarrassed.
- Often, Emirati will speak loudly and sound angry, even in a business setting. Showing emotion in this way demonstrates interest and engagement, not a lack of control or anger. If your boss or colleagues appear angry, consider that this could be a positive sign.
The UAE is a melting pot of different cultures, attitudes, and religions. It's one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, yet its tolerant society experiences little ethnic tension or strife.
This diversity has a direct impact on how you should manage your team. Do your best to build trust among your team members to help them work together. Spend a great deal of time developing your own relationships with your boss and colleagues. Time spent on small talk is not wasted in the UAE.
Lastly, Emirati will judge you based on your appearance, so your clothing is important. Dress smartly but modestly, and if you're a woman, take care not to wear pants or revealing clothing.