Before becoming too concerned with UAE social etiquette within the Muslim culture, let’s develop a bit of perspective. Particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Emirati population makes up about 20% of the population. An additional 25% is made up of Indians and 12% are Pakistanis. More than 200 nationalities make up the remaining 47% of the population.*
To complicate things, you may meet Muslims who are not from the Middle East, and Arabs who are not Muslim. It is certainly important to behave correctly when conducting business with Muslims. That said, certain attitudes and behaviors will make social interactions more comfortable for you and the Emiratis, Muslims, and Arabs you come into contact with.
1. Be kind and “in the present”.
Avoid appearing brusque, impatient, or in a hurry. Relationships are extremely important in the Arab culture, so treating someone like a functionary (only there to do something or get something for you) is an insult. Americans, work-oriented and usually too busy, may behave this way. We are accustomed to “getting down to business”. If you try to chat with a salesclerk in Chicago or New York, you will probably be considered really peculiar.
2. Spending a bit of time talking with someone next to you in a queue, for example, may serve you well.
Think of it as “investing” time, not “wasting” time. Networking is not transactional. Think long term and the results will come. Every interaction with different groups introduces you to a different power dynamic, even the security guards in your building. Someone you meet informally may in fact have wasta within a network that you need. Wasta is an Arabic word that translates to something like influence, authority, or connections. Sometimes rules can become more flexible if you know someone who has wasta. You will find that within the Muslim culture, people are generally quite happy to help. Reaching your goals, whatever they are, may well depend on who you get to know.
3. It is quite okay for a Western woman to chat with or shake hands with a Muslim woman she does not know.
Western women are often nervous about speaking to a woman in a hijab, but the gesture will generally be warmly received. Hospitality is a hallmark of the culture and a great UAE social etiquette tip. Use small talk and focus on common goals, not your differences. Humor is appreciated, but do not use profanity or make unfavorable comments about religion or politics.
4. Be aware of proprieties between men and women.
A woman should not initiate a conversation in a casual situation with a Muslim man she does not know. Never shake hands with the opposite gender who is Muslim unless they extend their hand first.
5. Among Muslims, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered unclean.
Thus, the right hand should be used for eating, shaking hands, or handing over an item such as a business card. It is considered an insult to use your left hand in these circumstances.
A special thank you to IMPACT Group Career Coach Vicky Kennedy, based in the UAE, for her input on this article!
* Ethnicity, Language, & Religion of the United Arab Emirates, Safari the Globe