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Working in the UAE – What You Need to Know


Before you go to work in the UAE, it is a good idea to learn a bit about the country’s culture and religion. Something as simple as shaking hands with the wrong person or handing over your business card with your left hand can offend potential clients and employers. With around 80% of its population being foreign-born, the UAE displays a general level of tolerance to different cultures and customs. However, if you want to succeed while working in the United Arab Emirates, it is a good idea to brush up on customs and etiquettes; while some blunders may be tolerated, they won’t do a lot for your reputation and career progression. Here, HR Source’s specialists look at some Emirati customs that you ought to know.

The Working Week

The UAE is a Muslim nation and most of its practices stem from Islam. Fridays are a day of prayer and rest. As such, trying to arrange meetings or making business calls and emails on a Friday is a no-no. In addition, during Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset; it is important that you are sensitive to this and eat and drink discreetly and sensitively.

Because of the high influx of expats working in the UAE, some organisations have adopted Western working hours, however the general working day runs Sunday – Thursday, from 8am-1pm and 4pm-7pm (the working day is two hours shorter during Ramadan). Due to the high temperatures in the UAE, many people take siestas, hence the long lunch break.

Dressing in the UAE

Dressing to impress in the UAE can be a challenge. Due to the searing temperatures, the temptation will be to wear as little as possible, but there are certain things that you should avoid. Dressing appropriately can be particularly challenging for women; although the UAE is one of the more liberal of the Middle Eastern countries, it is important that you consider the customs when dressing for an interview, business meeting, or work. Makeup should be worn in moderation, wearing lots of jewellery is frowned upon, and showing calves, thighs, arms or shoulders in any business setting is considered inappropriate.

As a general rule, women should avoid low necks and ensure that their legs and arms are covered; men should wear suits. If you are in a business meeting or dinner and you are in any doubt, be guided by your host. For example, no matter how hot you are, don’t remove your jacket unless your host does so first.

Meeting and greeting

Emiratis are sometimes “relaxed” when it comes to time-keeping. If you are scheduling a meeting, factor in that they may be late and make sure that you don’t have another engagement straight after.

The usual greeting in the UAE is “As-salam alaikum” (peace be upon you), to which the response is “Wa alaikum as-salam (peace be upon you too). Learning a few basics, such as “please” (Min fudlek) and “goodbye” (Ma salamaa) is not essential but demonstrates a respect for your Emirati colleagues that will be appreciated.

It is important that you acknowledge each colleague’s or prospective client’s status by addressing them in the correct way. Do your research properly, so that you know who is the boss or chief (Shaikh/ Shaikha), the engineer (Mohandas), professor (Ustadh), or simply a Mr or Mrs (Sayed or Sayeda).

Handshakes can last a little longer than many expats are used to, and often Emiratis will put their hand to their chest, to show their sincerity. It is customary to shake hands with the most senior person in the room first. If you are ever in doubt, the most senior person is usually the oldest, however, this is not always the case, so finding out beforehand can prevent you from making a blunder. If you are male, do not offer your hand to a Muslim woman unless she offers it first; similarly, if you are an expat woman working in the UAE, don’t proffer your hand until invited to by the male.

Business cards aren’t essential in the UAE, but they are a good idea, as much of your success depends on networking and invitations to social and business events. Have your business card printed in your language on one side and Arabic on the other and always hand your card (or anything else, for that matter) over with your right hand; passing something to someone with the left hand is considered offensive.

Living and working in the UAE is an incredible opportunity with a host of benefits. Don’t be daunted by the new customs that you need to learn; in a little time, they will be second nature to you. If you do make a faux-pas, don’t worry; Emiratis are tolerant and you can guarantee that you are not the first person to have got it wrong!

If you would like advice or information about working in the UAE, or if you would like help finding your dream job in the United Arab Emirates, follow us on LinkedIn.