Three Tips for Cross-Cultural Mastery in the UAE

Three Tips for Cross-Cultural Mastery in the UAE

As we discovered during our January visit, from the dazzling city of Dubai, to the buzzing metropolis of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates is rapidly climbing the ranks of the global business ladder, and investors worldwide are taking note. According to the Institute of International Finance, FDI into the UAE jumped from 8.9 billion in 2016 to 11 billion in 2017, a major success for the country’s banking, tourism, and manufacturing sectors. Businesses in the UAE are especially optimistic, as the country’s scores in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report rose to the top ten worldwide in five economic measures, and the country now ranks #21 globally and #1 regionally for their prosperous business environment.

The UAE is also known for its extensive expat population, with 90% of the working population living as international residents. Despite the UAE’s multicultural workforce, its embassy emphasizes that internationals “should nonetheless have some awareness of Arabic culture and the ways of commerce in an Arabian business environment.” Based on our time in the UAE, We couldn’t agree more. So for international business travelers to the UAE, remember these cross-cultural tips for developing mutual trust and respect.

1. Fostering Community: While the U.S. ranks high on Hofstede’s Individualism dimension, the UAE maintains a more communitarian approach to business, in both their client relations and collegial ties. Though not necessarily true for larger international firms, many businesses are family-owned, indicating the importance of personal connections, loyalty, and strong social networks in Emirati business. Use due diligence to determine the corporate structure. For internationals, focus on developing strong personal relationships with your Emirati counterparts. Be patient during initial meetings, which will likely be dedicated to introductory conversation.

2. Level Up: The Emirates have a rigidly hierarchical business culture in which everyone has a clearly defined role and defers to their superior without question. This may come as a shock to low power distance cultures such as the U.S., where such inequalities are disdained. However, it is vital for international business professionals to respect the hierarchy already in place. Visitors will want to remember to greet the most senior group member first. Then, if it hasn’t already been established, identify the decision maker in order to ensure that you’re dealing with the appropriate level of the hierarchy.

These values of formality and respect also hold true for business dress: you’ll want your wardrobe to be spotless, well-tailored, and stylish. For men this means suits in muted tones of grey, black, or blue, polished shoes, and impeccable grooming. For women, opt for pant suits, skirt suits or dresses that hit at the knee or lower, with arms and decollete covered at all times. Err on the conservative side, and dress your best to demonstrate respect for those with whom you meet.

3. Confirm and Clarify: According to Hofstede’s analysis, the UAE’s score for avoiding ambiguity and uncertainty is 80, almost twice that of the US. Taking measures to protect against miscommunication and logistical blunders is therefore a crucial part of doing business. Schedule all meetings several weeks in advance, and reconfirm in 2-3 days before the appointment. Before business meetings, meticulously prepare by editing documents and double-checking financials, numbers, materials so that you’re confident in every aspect of your project.

As the UAE continues to rise as an global business hub powered by increasingly diverse industries, visiting professionals will want to equip themselves with the skills to succeed in the art of intercultural communication. Take note of these three insights to integrate the Emirates’ venerated culture of community, respect and long-lasting business relationships.


Sharon Schweitzer and Amanda Alden co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business,  Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.

Amanda Alden is an intercultural research assistant with Access to Culture. She graduated with honors from St. Edward’s University with a major in Global Studies and a minor in French, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Intercultural Mediations at l’Université de Lille III. Feel free to connect with Amanda at on LinkedIn.

Photo: @Pxhere

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