United Arab Emirates

This overview serves to give you a general idea of what working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be like. We highlight many important topics you will encounter during your stay abroad.

Table of Contents

  • 1. The United Arab Emirates
  • 2. Working in the United Arab Emirates
  • 3. Business Etiquette
  • 4. Climate
  • 5. Dress Code
  • 6. Culture and Religion
  • 7. Emiratis
  • 8. Cuisine
  • 9. Currency
  • 10. Traffic
  • 11. Safety and Emergency Assistance
  • 12. Other Customs

1. The United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates, sometimes simply called the Emirates or the UAE, is a country located in the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf, bordering Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south, as well as sharing sea borders with Qatar and Iran. Established in December 1971, the country is a federation of seven emirates. The constituent emirates are Abu Dhabi (which serves as the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain.

2. Working in the United Arab Emirates

With 80% of the UAE’s population being foreign born, the country is often considered an expat’s paradise. Indeed, you’ll find that many aspects of living in the UAE combine to make settling in quite easy. With a combination of the middle-eastern weather, tax-free income and location within close proximity to top tourist destinations, the UAE is a highly sought after destination. Arabic is the official language, although English is widely used.

Everyday life in the UAE is defined by religion and tradition. Islam plays a major role in all aspects of life, including business etiquette and work environment. Meeting, greeting, and appropriate attire may not be rocket science in your home country, but can turn into huge pitfalls for some expatriates. You need to know the correct form of conduct when working in the UAE.

3. Business Etiquette

Today, The UAE contains vastly thriving business centers with immense career opportunities for foreign investment and expats. For those wishing to become involved in this lucrative market, the key to success is to first understand the Emirati culture and UAE business etiquette.

Hospitality is an essential part of Emirati culture and applies to both social and professional contexts. Guests will be received with enormous generosity. In the home this usually comes in the form of a feast of traditional Emirati food, especially during the holidays. In a business context, meetings are almost always accompanied by traditional Arab coffee and pastries. Sharing coffee is an important social ritual in the Middle East and it should be taken when offered. Cups should be taken in the right hand. If there is a waiter standing by replenishing your cup, there are two ways to signal that you have had enough; either leave a small amount of coffee in the bottom of your cup or gently tip the cup from side to side.

The emphasis placed on hospitality is closely connected to the importance of relationships. Foreigners should show their gratitude and dedicate time to cultivating relationships with their Emirati counterparts. Meetings should be scheduled in advance with extra time allocated in case it should go on longer or start later than anticipated. Always arrive on time for a meeting, however, know that punctuality is not considered a virtue in the Arab world, and people are often kept waiting before, or during, a meeting. Be patient, and do not take it as a lack of respect. In any meeting or telephone conversation, a period of small talk is expected before the purpose of the meeting or call is discussed. Many in the Middle East do not separate professional and personal life. Doing business revolves much more around personal relationships, family ties, mutual trust, and honor. It is vitally important to build on these.

The customary greeting is As-salam alaikum (peace be upon you) to which the reply is Wa alaikum as-salam (and upon you be peace). As a greeting, handshakes can be used. Etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. For a man introduced to a woman, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. Particularly in public, Muslim women are unlikely to shake a man’s hand. A Western woman introduced to a Muslim man might also wait to see if he offers his hand. Always use the right hand. Among Muslims, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered unclean. The right hand should be used for eating, shaking hands, or handing over an item. Holding hands among men is common and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West.

There is a strong vertical hierarchy in most Emirati companies. Many companies are owned and run by one powerful person who makes all of the decisions. This person must be treated with respect and deference, particularly if you hope to have a successful business relationship. Age, money and family connections are all key determining factors of a person’s status. Who you are is usually more important than what you have achieved. It is not uncommon to therefore find many members of one family working for the same company. Status is important and must be recognized by using the correct title such as Shaikh (chief), Mohandas (engineer) and Ustadh (professor). If you are unsure of someone’s title, find out beforehand or ask the person who introduced you. It is essential for expats working in the UAE to correctly spell and pronounce names and titles of their business partners. Abbreviations are considered rude and should be avoided. When first meeting a group of people, it is important that you shake hands and greet the most senior person first. Usually the oldest person in the room has the most seniority, but you might find there is another person who has stepped in to make the decisions.

Expats may also have to get used to a slower pace. Extensions and postponements are often a normal part of work. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when pious Muslims do not drink, eat or smoke between sunrise and sunset. Hence, working in the UAE can require some patience. Working in the UAE also means being able to control one’s temper. During long meetings or when faced with nerve-wrecking postponements, it is important to stand one’s ground without losing self-control. You should never become indignant when meetings run late or are interrupted for tea and coffee breaks. Direct criticism or refusal should be avoided. Differing opinions are often merely implied, and it is common practice to hide disagreement behind evasive statements.

The working week traditionally starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. Friday and Saturday are the official days of rest, though in some cases, people will work Saturdays. The official reference to determine Islamic occasions, such as the beginning of Ramadan or Haj, is the Hijri Calendar. This calendar is based on the phases of the moon. Hence, the exact dates of Islamic events and holidays vary from one Gregorian year to another as they depend on the local sightings of the moon.

4. Climate

The climate of the U.A.E is subtropical-arid with hot summers and warm winters. Sunny blue skies and high temperatures can be expected most of the year. Rain falls on an average of only 25 days per year; mainly in winter (December to March).

The pleasant season extends approximately from October to April when temperatures hover around a pleasant 24°C (75°F). The hottest months are July and August, when temperatures can skyrocket to 45°C (113°F) on the coastal plain. The country is well prepared for hot weather, however, with temperature controlled swimming pools and permanently air-conditioned hotels, malls, taxis and metros.  Average minimum temperatures in January and February range between 10 and 14°C (50 – 57°F).

Dust storms and sandstorms are caused by strong dry wind blowing over the desert and occasionally occur.  These storms can reduce visibility affecting aircraft and road transportation. In addition, it is advisable to protect your nose and mouth from dust should a sandstorm occur.

When considering clothing, layering is your best bet; wear light and long clothing outside and bring a jumper or sweatshirt for the heavily air-conditioned buildings around the cities. During November to March, warmer clothes are advised for during the evening. A hat, sunglasses and high factor sun block is also advisable to counter the strong sun.

5. Dresscode

The UAE has a modest dress code. The dress code is part of Dubai’s criminal law. Visitors to the UAE are expected to abide by local standards of modesty however, do not adopt native clothing. Traditional clothes on foreigners may be offensive. Most malls in the UAE have a dress code displayed at entrances.

Women should cover their shoulders and knees. No tight, see-through, or revealing clothing should be worn as this is considered disrespectful. Therefore women should not wear sleeveless tops, short shorts, or low necklines.  Long, loose and lightweight clothing is ideal, particularly during summer

Men should avoid wearing visible jewelry, particularly around the neck. A jacket and tie are usually required for men at business meetings. Men should wear long pants and a shirt, preferably long sleeved, buttoned up to the collar. Men should avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts in the street, as these are regarded as excessively casual, although with the development of tourism, this attitude is softening.

Beachwear is acceptable at beach clubs, hotels and public beaches but swimmers should avoid excessively revealing swimming suits. Thongs, Brazillian-style itsy-bitsy bikinis and going topless are not ok.

6. Culture and Religion

Many cities in the UAE basically feel like the center of the world; there are so many different nationalities here, each contributing to the jumble of languages and dress, not to mention food and talents. Navigating the mix and mayhem can be one of the best things about living in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Islam is the official religion of the UAE. Education, Laws, food, clothes, daily routines and even conversations are all strongly influenced by Islam. In conversation, “in’shallah,” which means “God willing” is widely used. The Islamic faith also places great emphasis on behaviors such as generosity, respect and modesty which most Emiratis will display. Muslims pray five times a day; you will likely hear the calls to prayer. Insulting Islam or the prophets is a serious offense. Proselytizing is illegal.

The government follows a policy of tolerance toward other religions and rarely interferes in the activities of non-Muslims. By the same token, non-Muslims are expected to avoid interfering in Islamic religious matters or the Islamic upbringing of Muslims. Given the tolerance it is still important to remember and respect the local customs of your host country in order to enjoy your stay in the UAE to the full.

Sex segregation is still evident in social life. It is not uncommon to see separate waiting areas, or buildings for men and women. That said, the Constitution of the UAE guarantees equal rights for both men and women. Women enjoy the same legal status, claim to titles, access to education and the right to practice professions as men. They are also guaranteed the same access to employment, health and family welfare facilities.

7. Emiratis

There is an unofficial social structure in the UAE, and Emiratis are at the top. It’s not unusual to be standing in a queue to order ice cream or buying a pair of shoes, only to find an Emirati has jumped to the front of the line and commanded the cashier or server’s attention. It’s also possible to be waiting in the heat for 15 minutes for a taxi and when one stops, the person who arrived seconds ago sweeps into it.

8. Cuisine

The traditional food of the Emirates has always been rice, fish and meat. The modern diet of the United Arab Emirates is cosmopolitan, featuring dishes from around the world.

Muslims follow the doctrines of the Koran, which forbids consumption of alcohol, pork products, and shellfish. It is best not to consume these in the presence of government or religious officials. It is also prohibited to drink alcohol in public. Alcohol is only allowed to be served in hotels, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Specific supermarkets may sell alcohol, but these products are sold in separate sections. Note that although alcohol may be consumed, it is illegal to be intoxicated in public or drive a motor vehicle with any trace of alcohol in the blood. There is zero tolerance toward drugs.

A non-Muslim needs to be very careful during the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims and non-Muslims alike are required to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public during the fasting hours (generally sunrise to sunset). In the UAE, most businesses and offices ban eating and drinking at desks out of respect to those colleagues who are fasting. Some set up special rooms where food and drink can be consumed. Bars and restaurants will open at night and serve alcohol, but usually will not play any music. It is extremely important to remember not to eat, drink or smoke when out on the street or in one’s car: the police keep watch and have handed out fines for doing so. It is also good to remember that fasting colleagues – even those on the road during the drive home – could be growing increasingly tired and irritable as they have not eaten or had a drink all day. People frequently leave on mini-breaks during Ramadan.

9. Currency

The currency of the UAE is the Dirham (AED), divided into 100 fils. ATMs are widely available and credit cards are accepted in most establishments. Expats are able to open a bank account in the UAE.

A 10 percent fee is usually added to restaurant bills, but this rarely makes it to the serving staff, so leaving an additional cash tip on the table may be a good idea. It is customary to round up taxi fares to the nearest AED 5 and giving an additional AED 10 to hairdressers and beauty therapists is appreciated.

10. Traffic

Vehicles drive on the right; seat belts are mandatory and children under 10 must sit in the rear seats. In order to drive, expats must get a local driving license once they acquire their residence visa. Holders of a driving license issued by the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most European countries do not need to take a driving test.

Most expats drive themselves or take a taxi. Efforts are being made to ease congestion, but in the cities there is often heavy traffic during morning and evening rush hours. Expats usually need to take time to adjust to the erratic driving habits of the locals. Although there are cameras at many intersections and fines are high, it is not uncommon to see drivers ignore red lights and speed limits.

Roundabouts in the UAE can be especially confusing for non-locals. These roundabouts are helpful in terms of smooth flow of traffic but also sometime difficult for the drivers to approach correctly. In general, roundabouts are two or three tracked but you can find more tracks as well.

Expats who aren’t keen to buy or rent a car in the UAE and don’t want to brave the emirate’s roads often get around by taxi. Taxis can be flagged on the street or ordered ahead by telephone. Taxis are usually metered and are relatively affordable.

11. Safety and Emergency Assistance

The UAE is one of the safest places in the world to visit and most expats feel confident about their level of personal safety in the UAE. Petty crime is rare and serious crime virtually unheard of. Local laws are stringent; in some cases, more so than home-country policies. Thus, to keep safely out of the way of authorities, it’s vital expats familiarize themselves with the legalities of the area.

In case of emergency dial 999.

12. Other Customs

There are a few other customs that have not yet been mentioned and are nevertheless useful to be aware of.

  • Don’t beckon to people with a finger, as this is considered particularly impolite. Arabs might use such a gesture to summon a dog.
  • Don’t engage in any noisy or disrespectful behaviour.
  • Public displays of affection between people of the opposite sex, including between married people, are frowned upon everywhere more conservative values hold sway. Public displays of affection include activities as minor as hand-holding.
  • Avoid putting an Arab in a position where he might suffer a ‘loss of face’ in front of other Arabs. He will appreciate this, if he notices your action.
  • Don’t try to enter a mosque without first asking permission. It’s unlikely that you will be allowed in.
  • You should avoid showing the soles of your shoes or feet, which implies that you think the other person is ‘dirt’, which is obviously highly offensive. You should therefore keep your feet flat on the ground and not cross your legs.
  • If you’re invited to the home of an Arab, you should always accept. You should generally take every opportunity to become acquainted with local people and avoid the natural tendency to stay within the social and physical confines of your foreign ‘ghetto’.
  • Avoid politics and religion as subjects for discussion; your opinions might be regarded as ill-informed or even offensive, even if they seem acceptable to you from a western perspective.
  • It is customary to take off one’s shoes before entering a private house.