Doing Business in Abu Dhabi
Any expat doing business in Abu Dhabi will find themselves one foreigner in a sea of many. The vast majority of Abu Dhabi's population is made up of those from abroad and, as a result, the working world is a mosaic of multinational influences.
Business culture in Abu Dhabi is highly variable, and contingent upon the in-house customs and etiquette of each particular firm. Expats can best prepare by acknowledging this potential for difference, and by bracing themselves for variation.
That said, it's important to realise that, despite its diversity, Abu Dhabi is still governed by Islamic tenets; Emirati businessmen will always conduct themselves according to Arab culture and a greater Muslim mandate. Expats will therefore need to familiarise themselves with and respect the local customs of this sector of the Abu Dhabi business world.
The UAE, in general, is a relatively easy place in which to do business, as has been illustrated in numerous international business surveys. Most notably, the country was ranked an impressive 26th out of 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2017. The UAE was ranked in first place for paying taxes, and also scored particularly highly for factors such as dealing with construction permits (4th) and protecting minority investors (9th).
The work week in Abu Dhabi is Sunday to Thursday, with the weekend falling on a Friday and Saturday. Working hours are usually between 7.30am and 9am until 5pm; however, the incredible summer heat has inspired a ‘split shift’ schedule that includes a three- to four-hour break in the afternoon and extended evening hours. Working hours are shortened during Ramadan.
Arabic is the official language of the UAE, but English is widely spoken in business.
Work attire in Abu Dhabi is formal and conservative – suits and ties are mandatory. Women should dress modestly, covering their arms and legs and wearing closed-toed shoes. Emiratis may either choose to wear Western attire or a dishdasha, a flowing robe seen at nearly every type of occasion.
Though appreciated, gifts are not always necessary. As the UAE is a Muslim country be sure to avoid anything involving alcohol or pork products.
Men and women are treated equally in business, although senior executive positions are still dominated by men.
A handshake is the usual greeting between men. Placing one's right hand on one's chest after shaking hands marks a sign of respect. If greeting a woman, wait for her to extend her hand first.
Business culture in Abu Dhabi
Though Abu Dhabi is considered one of the most modern Middle Eastern environments, it nonetheless subscribes to the values and traditions of the Islamic religion. Expats should endear themselves to the idea that every aspect of a local Emirati's life is governed by their faith, including business culture.
Foreigners looking to successfully do business in Abu Dhabi must acquaint themselves with the importance of building relationships. Emiratis do business with people they trust, and initial business dealings will always be devoted to 'getting to know each other'. Some smaller, family-owned businesses may only grant access to decision-makers once a connection with junior members has been forged. Expats should budget time for this endeavour and should take care not to rush into negotiations.
Expats may be surprised to find that punctuality is not always observed and it is not uncommon to be kept waiting on occasion. As family takes precedence in the Middle East, meetings may feature frequent interruptions and disturbances, so patience is expected. The Arabic greeting of 'Salaam Alaikum' is used instead of 'hello' and relationships built on politeness are pivotal to success in the professional world. Dates in documents should be detailed in both Gregorian and Hijrah dates.
As is the case in any other Arab city, verbal agreements hold significant weight. Expats should choose their words carefully when it comes to establishing conditions, terms and agreements. It's also best to prepare for some heartfelt haggling; bargaining is a popular pastime.
When interacting with women in the workplace, be mindful of Islamic practice. Some females may not be comfortable shaking hands with men, and while dress may be an indicator, it is never a guarantee. Wait for a businesswoman to offer her hand, and then act accordingly. Otherwise, a simple bow of the head will suffice.
Dos and don’ts of business in Abu Dhabi
Do always dress conservatively and wear a suit and tie
Don't rush into business talk. Emiratis like to do business with those they know and trust and therefore it's good to build relationships and get to know one's associates first.
Do arrive on time, even though locals may be late
Don't use the left hand to eat or gesture to another person
Do have one side of a business card translated into Arabic