You’re heading to Dubai on business? That’s no surprise: The city rocketed onto the list of the top five most robust economies in the world last year, and it’s considered one of the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan cities. But Islamic influence makes doing business in the City of Gold a bit more nuanced than in, say, the City of Light. Here are some of the most common professional pitfalls — and how to avoid them.
- Swashbuckling: Your hard-charging, Type A alter ego should be benched. Meetings here move at a slower pace, with manners and courtesy making the most impact on your hosts. Graciously accept the refreshments you’re offered, which might include cardamom-infused coffee or a puff from the shisha, or hookah. Embrace the culture and let patience be your guide.
Do: Stand when any guest — of either gender — joins the meeting. And in Dubai, your word is your bond. If you agree to terms — even verbally — be prepared to deliver on what you’ve promised.
- *&#@&!!!: Arabs love good banter as much as the next person. But profanity is uber-offensive in the Muslim world, so save your R-rated repertoire for your bar buddies back home. You could be fined and jailed for offensive language and gestures. And avoid dishing disparaging views of Islamic culture — you could be fined, jailed or deported.
Do: Impress your hosts by learning the Arabic phrase assalaamu alaikum (“peace be upon you”). You’ll hear this often, and you’ll discover that it’s a nice alternative to “Howdy” and “See ya.”
- Leading with your left: Keep that left hand tucked away when eating, gesturing and glad-handing with your Dubai colleagues. Muslims generally consider the left hand to be unclean.
Do: Let your host initiate handshakes — the usual greeting — and be prepared that handshakes can last a long time. Use only your right hand — covering the handclasp with your left hand won’t be appreciated.
- Eating in public during Ramadan: Visitors during the ninth, and holiest, month on the Islamic calendar will want to make sure they’re respectful of Ramadan’s restrictive customs. (In 2016, the observance will run from June 6 to July 5.) Eating, drinking and smoking — even chewing gum — during the day in public is against the law for Muslims and non-Muslims.
Do: Remember that Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol. While your Dubai colleagues may have adopted Western habits — many business types went to U.S. universities or have lived in the West — it’s best not to drink unless you’re invited to.
- Worrying too much: Dubai’s population is nearly 90 percent expat, and the business community is comfortable with all kinds of cultures.
Do: Relax! Try your best to respect the Emiratis’ values and avoid the preceding mistakes — but also know that you’re dealing with forgiving folks who understand that their culture is, most likely, pretty foreign to you.