One look at the streets of Abu Dhabi yields a mini-cosmos of international fare: a Lebanese restaurant, a South African meat distributor, a French sweets shop, an Iranian music store, an Indian movie theatre. It's a diversity no less present in the corporations that have found a home in the Gulf and are making the UAE the most diversified economy in the GCC. From the boulevards to the boardrooms, the business of doing business in the UAE has become a multicultural and cosmopolitan affair, and proper etiquette is one of the prime components that can help to seal the deal.
But what standards apply in an environment where 20 per cent of the population is national and 80 per cent expatriate? It would seem that in rapidly modernised emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, local custom has given way to universal protocol, or that most "local" customs are an adaptation of a pan-Arab ethos. But neither is the case. "The Arab world is so diverse that the GCC culture is very different than the rest," says Wael al Sayegh, an Emirati cross-cultural consultant based in Dubai. "And what makes the Emirati culture particularly important is that it is the culture of the law, despite the population being in the minority.
"It's important to understand how this culture ultimately creates the law and the country's future outlook as a whole." As this future outlook is tied to preserving tradition and heritage, there are cultural and religious customs that seep into the business environment. For instance, is accepting a cup of coffee necessary at the start of a meeting? Is a dinner invitation professional or social? How soon can a deal get signed? The Arab saying "a guest is a gift from God" is particularly true. Therefore, an Emirati host might expect a guest to accept a few cups of coffee at the start of a meeting, and see an invitation to a meal as a time to discuss nothing or everything about business. In other words, a personal relationship of trust and confidence often trumps the importance of the deal.
The mentality is one of wanting to know the individual rather than the business plan. "The product is you," says Ali al Saloom, a UAE-based cultural consultant and the founder of Embrace Arabia, "not the project or the product, or the machine or service. Our respect goes beyond just you; your business card is not what I really care about, or the way you give it to me; it's all about the individual."
This holds especially true for smaller and independent businesses, which may not have the credibility or brand recognition of bigger names. "In the past, when doing business with locals, you would sit and chat for hours before the topic of business was even raised," says Felicia Agmyren, the head of Rex Real Estate, an Abu Dhabi-based real estate brokerage. Ms Agmyren, who grew up in Abu Dhabi, says she can identify with the mentality. "This was done for the sake of hospitality, and also to get a sense of your character. Nowadays, however, they are more accustomed to dealing with foreigners and tend to make decisions at a much quicker pace."
Literature on doing business in the UAE has attempted to fill the gap. Don't They Know It's Friday?, by Jeremy Williams, covers a lot of cultural ground, while some business groups, such as the French Business Council of Abu Dhabi, offer manuals on the subject. The French group's L'essentiel d'un marché Emirats Arabes Unis, which is a great introduction to the UAE's business world, includes a section on cultural etiquette.
The trick for many is to understand how Islam and other local influences have shaped the business environment. Additionally, From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi, by Mohammed al Fahim, offers an invaluable glimpse into history for those interested in understanding the UAE's story of progress. While many entrepreneurs believe that an understanding of culture and history are secondary to a good business plan and individual personality, others are quick to emphasise the importance of the UAE's values.
"There are many elements of social behaviour that come from an Islamic, and specifically, Gulf source," says Mr Sayegh, whose company is a member of the Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders. "We're linked through a core set of values that come from the religion." These values come into play in ways sometimes unanticipated by a western audience. Boundary lines between genders, for instance, are different, and an Emirati man who has worked with a female colleague for 10 years may never shake her hand because, as Mr Sayegh notes, both come from a mutual religious and cultural background where those lines are understood.
It's one thing to say it, however, and another to observe it. "The problem is, until you've conducted a workshop, people don't really understand what you're talking about," says Mr Saloom, who conducts workshops and seminars on business etiquette for corporate clients. "For example, I'll do one exercise where I bring my assistant, Asma, with me, and I'll pretend I don't know her. Some of the clients may come up and shake her hand, and Asma will give her hand so they don't lose face. Then, I will come up to her and we won't shake hands. It flips people's heads when they see it. You have to see it, you have to go through the motions. You can't just read about it."
Concepts such as punctuality are a mutual source of difference. "What is punctual to me is different to what is punctual to a person from Luxembourg or Germany," says Mr Sayegh, who was born in Scotland. "If someone shows up 15 minutes late, I don't see it as discourteous. It is not an issue. However, if I am dealing with a person from Germany or Switzerland, they consider it discourteous; I should have called them to confirm that I would be late. It's a basic example that everyone lives through, but an important point to understand, especially when you run a company."
Mr Sayegh hints at the underlying notion of reputation, which can be damaged if an individual reads the other as behaving disrespectfully. Consequently, the concepts of reputation and saving face are integral parts to conducting successful business deals. "Reputation is very important. The minute you show disrespect, it's all over," says Mr Saloom. "Business has ethics and part of business is dealing with how you respond. We do our best to never say no to someone because we hate not being able to deliver. We prefer to first do our best and make sure we accommodate the individual. We don't like to see you lose face, and we don't want to lose face, either. That's why we like consultants; they never say 'no'. They always want to make things work."
Author Jeremy Williams, too, says "losing face" is one of the prime reasons that westerners are left scratching their heads if a business deal doesn't go through. "Many Arabs will concur that it is kinder to let the person concerned gently deduce himself that a problem exists rather than be told about it bluntly," he writes. In a world where hospitality and the instinct to please a guest, albeit a business guest, reigns supreme, being politely deflected and deferred to at the same time is one of the hardest behaviours for westerners to discern and understand.
"You can't take it personally," says an Abu Dhabi-based French entrepreneur. "You have to be patient and accept a certain flexibility, even when you've been coming three or four times for a deal, even when you've already signed the contract but things have changed, even when 'yes' was said but it meant 'no'. It's all part of the game." Business moves fast. It can be slow as well - hurry up and wait is the game par excellence. However, Mr Saloom adds: "You have to realise you are dealing with the best bargainers in the world. If we find a project with a clear vision and the product is a good deal, chances are the first handshake will seal the deal."
To other consultants, such as Patricia O'Sullivan, projecting oneself properly equals success. "It is important to project a professional image of a company through people skills, conversation and general manners," says Ms O'Sullivan, the managing director and founder of Pro Training, a training consultancy in Dubai. "Saying the right things to contacts and following up in a professional way is the key to good business and networking opportunities," she says. "For example, how do you make an entrance? What should you say? Perhaps more importantly, what shouldn't you say?
"People often think they know what is appropriate, but actually there are many stories of people who have encountered less than professional conduct, and this has an impact on who is chosen as a business partner. People generally want to do business with those they like and trust. Appropriate behaviour builds trust." In the one-day training course her company conducts, consultants demonstrate the proper way to make an entrance in order to avoid mistakes such as rushing straight for the buffet, arriving late and blaming it on the traffic and greeting while speaking on a phone.
She suggests that the best entrance is a confident, uncluttered one: pause on arrival in the room, scan the room for the host, have the phone tucked away out of sight and on silent. Carry one bag only, and on the left shoulder, which keeps the right hand free for shaking hands. Seek out the host and introduce yourself confidently. Don't form cliques with colleagues from your own company, she advises. Try to mingle and mix.
On the topic of making small talk, Ms O'Sullivan says that most introductory questions are the same, so a person can really impress by using more interesting answers. For example, instead of a non-working spouse saying: "I'm a housewife," she could say, "I am the home manager and I have the lives of four very busy people to organise". A hotelier or restaurateur may say: "I'm in the business of creating delicious memories". In this way, the individual creates a lasting memory in the minds of potential business partners and contacts.
Ultimately, whether a toothpick is used, whether a handshake is erroneously offered, or whether cups of coffee are drained or refused does not make a business deal. The etiquette merely stresses the universal edicts valued in any business environment: respect, credibility, honesty and business savvy. "Business is business," an Emirati friend told me. "Put away the stereotypes and you've got a business environment just like any other in the world. There, like here, it comes down to the individual." email@example.com
1. Cultural capacity Try to understand the environment before you dive in. See www.embracearabia.com or www.protraining.ae for cultural and business etiquette tips 2. First impressions will endure Researchers estimate that it takes between 15 and 30 seconds for the mind to form a lasting impression of an individual when encountering him or her for the first time. 3. Timing is everything or is it? Punctuality is an issue that is often brought up, but the length of meetings or their spontaneity are also factors to consider. Overall, try to be flexible. 4. Remember attire It may seem obvious, but remember where you are, and that what is appropriate for a meeting in Miami Beach is not suitable for a meeting in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi or Dubai. 5. Be yourself You may refuse a cup of coffee or erroneously shake hands, but it is ultimately you that is the product. Earnestness, respect and integrity are highly valued traits.