When In The Emirates, Do As Emiratis Do!

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That the UAE market is opening to Israeli businesses is incredibly exciting! But it’s worth remembering that in the Emirates, things are done differently. Theirs is a highly traditional, conservative society. Business connections are built here with patience, over time, through personal interaction with the other party, and very clear adherence to procedures. There are no shortcuts here. And forget about “combinations.”

Gil Weinstein, from the Israel Export Institute and a specialist on business development, offers this valuable collection of tips for Israeli businesspeople seeking opportunities in the Emirates.

[First article in the series]

Take a deep gulp of patience, and then another two or three! The business potential when it comes to ties with the UAE is tremendous. But despite our desire to get into business, fast, be the first, get things rolling, we highly recommend that Israeli business representatives coming to the UAE fill their suitcases with massive doses of patience – and sensitivity. In the UAE, things work differently than here in Israel or the USA, especially since Israelis aren’t sufficiently recognized yet in the UAE. Expecting to land in the UAE and make it big in one go is fundamentally mistaken. There are no shortcuts here. You need patience, and then some.

Learn the market thoroughly. Like every new market, the Emirati marketplace needs to be learned well, and in advance, especially when it comes to the complexity of several emirates operating under one roof. Abu Dhabi is NOT like Dubai. Spend time learning about the UAE and its market: How is it structured? Who are its players? How large is the market? What do Emiratis need? What’s the business climate like? Which branches of Israeli business address needs in the Emirates? And especially: what are the accepted customs and norms in the UAE? In short, do your homework thoroughly.

Show sensitivity to the local culture. Even though the Emirates have opened up to the west and the majority of their managers and business people have studied in leading American or British universities, Emirati culture remains traditional, conservative, and strongly Islamic. Values such as family honor are dominant. These values also manifest in their business dealings. In family businesses or companies, for example, the head of the household is generally the chairman, and even if he is no longer active, he is accorded respect and honor. He is also the person who gives any transaction the final green light.

Nurture personal connections. Everywhere in the business world, personal connections between supplier and customer are important. In the UAE, this is particularly evident. Local business people must feel closely familiar with the person they’ll be doing business with: Where is the business person from? What has she or he done in their life? Usually the foreigner will be invited into the local business person’s home, where foreigners are “put through their paces” as a personal relationship slowly develops. Hosting foreigners is an inherent part of local culture. As the connection slowly shifts from less formal to more casual, relationships develop that pave the way for business deals.

Talk to Emiratis as your equals. Be sensitive to local culture and don’t approach local Emirati business people with a patronizing attitude of “we know better than you do what’s good for you.” In business interactions with Emiratis, be modest, talk to them as equals, and change your frame of speech from “we came to sell ….” to “we’d like to work with you.” Your choice of terminology in the UAE is extremely important: we recommend you place emphasis on the idea of cooperation, and achieving a business agreement that suits both sides.

Maintain basic frameworks of decent behavior. The Emirates are traditional and conservative societies, so keep that uppermost in your minds at all times. It manifests, for example, in ensuring clothes are modest for both men and women. Even longer shorts are completely out of the question, for example. Emiratis place importance on the country’s symbols and expect foreign business people to act accordingly. This is no less true for their holy places: we strongly recommend you avoid all comments that are cynical or ridicule religion, a highly sensitive area for Emiratis, even if you’re closely familiar with your host. Steer clear of those waters altogether.

Attitudes towards women. Although Emiratis show respect towards women and their rights, and may even relate to an approach by women from Israel with as much, if not more, seriousness than one coming from men, Emirati society is still founded on traditional values where women are dressed modestly, and their hands are not shaken unless the woman is the one initiating the approach.

Follow the rules. Avoid shortcuts and “combinations.” For example, it is absolutely forbidden to flirt with your competitor when conducting a business negotiation. This will be quickly noticed and you’ll lose your counterpart’s trust. Relate with seriousness and respect to the process of conducting business. Do not try to take advantage of your host’s momentary distraction to “make a fast buck.”

Proper conduct during business meetings. In business meetings attended by multiple participants, take note of several rules: stand up when older people and women enter the room. It is customary to first approach the oldest person in the room – the seniority first approach. NEVER cross your legs, or lean back. To Emiratis, this is disrespectful: doing that exposes the soles of your shoes to others, which in Arabic culture is viewed as humiliating to the other person.

Language. Most business people in the UAE speak excellent English but they really respect Arabic speakers. Try to bring at least one speaker of Arabic with you. Emiratis also show empathy towards people who try to learn their language, or at least can integrate a sentence or phrase in Arabic during the conversation.

Media and culture. Emiratis’ use of social media, including for business, is extensive. Anyone able to leverage social networks in the UAE is likely to have great success there.

For more details: Gil Weinstein, Coordinator of Business Development with the UAE in the Institute for Export and Ministry of Foreign Affairs gilw@export.gov.il

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