x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Culture classes' a boost for business

Wrecking a potentially lucrative deal with a misjudged handshake is just one of many pitfalls facing the unwary westerner in the UAE.

Abdallah bin Eisa al-Serkal, director of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, discusses Islam with non-Muslims at Dubai's Jumeirah Mosque.
Abdallah bin Eisa al-Serkal, director of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, discusses Islam with non-Muslims at Dubai's Jumeirah Mosque.

Wrecking a potentially lucrative deal with a misjudged handshake is just one of many pitfalls facing the unwary western businessman or woman in the UAE - even without a global slowdown to make etiquette errors more expensive. As a result, westerners are increasingly signing up for Arabic business courses to maximise their chances of wooing clients in the UAE. The idea of teaching Arabic culture to westerners is not new, but in the present tough trading environment, companies are keen to make every effort to impress potential investors. Soaring business activity between the UAE and the West in recent years has seen the establishment of several companies offering "culture courses" designed to arm newly-arrived executives with an understanding of Emirati culture and a checklist of dos and don'ts to ensure that their deals run smoothly. Revealing clothing, stumbles over names and offering handshakes to the wrong people or in the wrong order can all sabotage an otherwise faultless first impression, according to Communicaid, one of the world's largest culture course providers. "In the past, a lot of business people made a lot of mistakes and it has meant the difference between contracts being won or lost," said Donna Marsh, a tutor in Arabic culture with Communicaid. "Companies have learnt their lesson and don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past, certainly not in the current economic climate." The company runs a programme called "Doing Business in the UAE", which provides an overview of the importance of Islam, family and hospitality in the structure of Emirati society, as well as modules on working practices. "The purpose of the course is to provide a smooth transition for Western business people who are going to be working in the UAE," said Cora Malinak, a culture and communications adviser at Communicaid. "We aim to help people understand the different attitudes and values of people in the Middle East. "We give a rundown on the politics and economy of the country and the impact of Islam on society. "Business can be conducted in very different ways in the West and the Arab world. There can be a huge amount of misunderstanding, simply through a lack of knowledge. "That is where we come in. "A deal can easily fall through because someone simply misunderstands basic Arabic meeting etiquette, such as a man trying to shake the hand of an Arabic businesswoman." Ms Marsh added: "Successful business in the UAE relies on good relationships. The key to building strong relationships is integrity. "Arabs prize trust very highly in business dealings. Westerners will often have to spend a great deal of time establishing trust with Arab business counterparts, but once that level of trust is there, business can move forward pretty fast." In Dubai, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding also operates awareness courses to help new arrivals to acclimatise. The centre aims to "bring down barriers between people of different nationalities, and to help understand the traditions, customs and religion of the UAE". Participants are taught everything from UAE history and the role of Islam and family to the difference between Arabic and western negotiation strategies. According to Communicaid, Emirati companies often follow a more traditional "top-down" business model, with one powerful person making all the key decisions. The company added that UAE executives preferred to do business with people they knew, so a personal recommendation could prove invaluable, and face-to-face discussion was always preferred to telephone calls. Minesh Patel, 27, a lawyer from London who moved to the UAE six months ago, took part in a cultural awareness programme arranged by his firm, Allen & Overy LLP. "It was really helpful in terms of understanding the working practices and cultural differences," he said. "The part dealing with etiquette in business meetings was the most useful bit." Henry Bremridge, 28, a banking executive originally from Winchester and who is now based in Dubai, completed an online cultural awareness course before leaving Britain. "There are some significant cultural differences between the way things are done in the UK and here," he said. "I thought the course was a really good idea and particularly valuable for people who are interacting a lot with UAE business people and clients. "If you are going to spend a lot of time meeting Emirati clients it is extremely important. "Relationship building is a key element of doing business here and it is particularly important in the current economic climate." Another lawyer from London, Georgina Smee, 27, who also works in Dubai, said the course had helped her conduct business in the UAE. "If you are told in advance that people will answer their phones in the middle of a business meeting and it is not meant to be rude, it stops any misunderstanding." chamilton@thenational.ae