Understanding local UAE customs could help seal deals

Naz Demir, North East England Chamber of Commerce international trade manager, offers some great advice on some of the culture issues you need to be mindful of when doing business in the United Arab Emirates

The welcome news for people looking to export is that you can look beyond Brexit and find rich pickings, in particular, in the Middle East. The UK’s long-term relationships with the Gulf remains strong and will emerge re-energised after current negations between the two countries.

British ministers have used the concept of Global Britain as the post-Brexit platform for overhauling foreign policy, indeed Theresa May has been quoted as saying she is looking for the strongest possible trading relationships between the UK and the Gulf after the UK leaves the EU.

If you don’t know much about this part of the world the statistics speak for themselves. In 2018 trade between the UAE and UK totalled £16bn and in 2017 £17.5bn and, according to officials, by 2020 the UK government wants that number to increase to about £25bn.

One of the most easily accessible countries for our businesses is the UAE, which has a diverse and multi-cultural society. It helps our exporters that 80 per cent of the UAE population are expatriates and the country is perhaps one of the most relatively liberal destinations within the Gulf region.

Most businessmen and businesswomen are intrigued by the opportunities the UAE brings about. It’s interesting that on many occasions, I have been asked about the business culture before the usual questions on the ins and outs of how to set up a business or trade in-country.

I always start by stating that in a country dominated by expats it may feel cosmopolitan and tolerant, but we must not forget that the UAE is a Muslim country. Islam regulates people’s laws and attitudes. Family and relationships play a key role in everyday social and business life. Awareness and respect of the local traditions is a must. Nevertheless, it is worth knowing that other religions are respected equally; churches and temples can be found alongside mosques.

In line with tradition, a common sight is the kandoora or dishdasha, that most Emirati males wear, an ankle length white shirt, while the Emirati females wear the abaya, a black flowing- over garment covering most of the body.

A word of advice: don’t assume it would be considered polite to copy this mode of dressing – a suit and a tie and modest female business attire are definitely the way to go. The Islamic dress code is not compulsory in the UAE but bear in mind that if you are visiting any religious site you must be dressed appropriately, after all nothing wrong with combining a bit of cultural sightseeing while conducting business abroad, this is why international trade should be fun.

If you are considering the UAE as your next international market destination, then it is imperative that you take time to establish trust and build relationships. Face-to-face meetings are always more favourable when negotiating contracts and deals, Emirates rely heavily on oral communication and face-to-face discussions.

In my experience setting up a meeting should be done few weeks prior to arrival date and confirming it a day or two prior to arrival always works best, perhaps finding a mutual contact could lead to even a more definite success in terms of seeing your target person.

UK businesses can find demanding trade negotiations and the length they take to be sometimes frustrating, I have always advised patience, you must be prepared to invest the time in the relationship, though, I always recommend that you should carry out due diligence and consult a lawyer before signing or agreeing to any deals.

Meeting formats can be very different when one looks at it from a westerner’s perception. It is quite common to have interruptions during meetings, do not feel offended, embrace the culture and go with the flow and be prepared to reschedule or continue the conversation at another time, remember patience is a key. Emiratis are excellent negotiators and once they agree a deal orally or in writing they abide by it.

Helpful hint: Make an effort, learn some key words prior to your trip, it’s an ice breaker and it will help make a good impression. Use the correct title when addressing someone, Sheikh (male chief) or Sheikha for a female, Sayed (Mr) or Sayeda (Mrs). Keep in mind, Islam is deeply ingrained in the United Arab Emirates and casual conversations are peppered with religious expressions, such as “in’shallah,” which means “God willing”, “As-salāmu alaykum” when entering a room “Greeting – Peace be upon you”. Remember people buy from people.

UAE is a major strategic hub for foreign trade, with its well- developed ports, transport, communications and business infrastructure, a high standard of living and a major tourist destination. No ambition is too eccentric, though it can be a highly competitive market for a new entrant. Therefore, it’s important that you do your homework prior to entering this market.

In fact, this should be the case with any international market, as some markets are easier in terms of business etiquettes and culture, others are more challenging. Understanding the local custom, traditions, geography and social dynamics can make negotiations easier and lead to a successful trade deal outcome. There are some great marketplaces there, good luck and I hope they bear fruit.

Naz Demir
International trade manager