Doing Business in Dubai – Debunking the Mystery and Myths

If you are visiting Dubai on business and don’t have the foggiest notion of what to expect, don’t fret — it’s no cloak and dagger! With over 200 nationalities residing here, we live in a booming metropolis with monstrous skyscrapers and world records we can’t keep track of. Despite its tolerance for Western culture, it’s also a country where Islam permeates all levels of society. Dubai is no jerkwater town for sure. Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs? No need to fret!

Allow me to give you a snapshot.

  • In Dubai, business is highly personal and very contingent on trust, family ties, and respect. Here, having the right connections is particularly important — especially if linked to the ruling family. If you happen to know someone from the Sheikh’s family, you have instant attention!
  • Walk into an office and a tea boy will promptly approach you with an offer of coffee or tea. Don’t forget to signal when you are done, otherwise you will have endless refills! Coffee everywhere is almost always served with a date or a cookie, so your server did not make a mistake. Always a nice surprise. 🙂
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Coffee served at More cafe in Business Central Towers.

  • Locals are hospitable and typically expect you to partake in any food offerings. Say thank you, eat it, and ask questions later. They are masters at grilling meat and Middle Eastern food is pretty healthy and humble food.
  • Nepotism is common. You also won’t see too many women over 40 working in offices. Arabs are also historically known to be strong negotiators; expect lots of haggling. There is such a thing called Islamic-compliant banking, so if you are in finance you need to be aware of what this is.
  • Depending on where you are, you may hear the Islamic Call to Prayer,  since it happens 5 times a day, so don’t be surprised if a local excuses himself from a meeting to pray; most are very devout in their faith. During Ramadan, eating in public during fasting hours is a big NO-NO!
  • Speaking of prayer, there are prayer rooms built-in literally every shopping mall, recreational park, and office building. Be careful not to confuse them with the restroom since they are usually right next door. Awkward moment for sure, but you will probably get a friendly smile and point to the right direction. Also remember that for locals appointments may be retrofitted to prayer time. Friday is congregational day so don’t expect business appointments on that day nor government agencies to be open.

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  • You can only buy pork in select supermarkets in sections labeled For Non-Muslims Only. OK, you probably will not be buying pork while on a business trip, but this just lets you know that pork is not mainstream. The UAE is accommodating enough to offer it at select shops for purchase by expats. My advice? Do not order the pork (if available) when having a business lunch with an Emirati. Not many restaurants serve it, but some of the higher end ones do.

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  • The local men wear a Kandora, which is their cultural uniform. The thing about this is that you can’t tell who is the head honcho. This can actually be a good thing. Makes you err on the side of caution and treat everyone with the utmost reverence.
  • Don’t gasp out loud and drop your jaw when you see male Indian nationals holding hands. In their culture, holding hands between men is a sign of close friendship and brotherhood. I know it may seem odd to us Westerners, but just because it’s not our cultural norm or you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it wrong.
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Safest way to cross the street in my opinion. 🙂

  • Toilet flushes sit above the top, and then there are squat toilets. Toilets are equipped with a “bum gun”, so don’t faint or call for help. And, yes, almost everyone takes a picture of that abysmal hole in the ground the first time they ever see it. Go ahead and take your pic, but don’t let the guy you are trying to make a deal with see you taking the photo. 🙂
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Hotel toilet somewhere in Abu Dhabi. This is the first toilet pic I ever took in the UAE. Circa 2008.

  • The local men greet by touching noses. I would not try doing this since this is something that the local men do towards each other. A firm handshake should suffice. Remember, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered unclean, so always offer your right hand. Here’s what I read:

“ When doing business in the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Islamic etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. Always use the right hand. Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere. You are introduced to a woman as a male, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. If it is not, then do not try to shake hands. Avoid touching and prolonged eye contact with women”

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  • If you bring your spouse, don’t get caught up in the mystery and awe of the city and smack your honey a big kiss or overly passionate embrace. Excessive public affection is frowned upon. There are many variables to this such as which Emirate in the UAE and venue you are in. Play it safe, contain your emotions, and save amorous gestures for later!
  • The Arabic term “Inshallah” (meaning God Willing) does not automatically seal the deal. It’s pretty much a disclaimer that there is no guarantee it will happen by said time. BUT, know this: the local’s culture is one that values the spoken word, as opposed to a written agreement. Your word is connected to your honor, so failure to live up to your promises will make you lose credibility very quickly!

What I’ve learned….

Despite all these differences when talking and getting to know people of different cultures, we find much more in common than we’d ever imagine.

To be sensitive and aware of people’s culture and that just because a person is from a particular place or race, they don’t necessarily have to all share the same habits or views

Expats should reach out and mingle more with those of weak ties. People who are very different from us who we do not normally affiliate often have a great deal of insightful information to share. Keep an open mind and don’t make assumptions when meeting people!

Every person I meet has something to teach me. As an expat living abroad, you cross paths with so many different people from all over the world. People with varying mindsets, views, lifestyles, and cultures. They become our teachers in a sense. Lots of lessons to learn from those we meet about life and about ourselves.

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3 thoughts on “Doing Business in Dubai – Debunking the Mystery and Myths

  1. Your general info is much helpful and appreciated. I am going to Dubai to look into an offer for a venture business mainly in renovation in kitchen and bathroom for residential properties. The business will include importing high quality solid wood new kitchen cabinets, doors, brand name appliances. Also there will be an industrial space in Dubai to do all kinds of related work and storage. As a professional in Canada for 25 years and brought up in Hong Kong, I have had extensive experience and connections in both countries.
    Do you think I can be successful in Dubai – a place that I have no knowledge of? Thanks,

    JamesNg

    • Hi James,

      I think you will do fine, as long as you are patient and open to learning how business is done here. Standards do seem to be high, so just keep that in mind. There is certainly a market here for high quality goods of any kind. I suggest you hire a business consultant to help with the details of setting up business here, which can be a little confusing if you are not familiar. Creative Zone is one, but there are others as well.

      Best wishes with your new venture!

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