Manners make business

A MAJOR factor in successfully doing business in the Middle East is understanding that business relationships, local customs and standards of behaviour are far more important and influential than in Australia.

Face-to-face meetings are very important and it is almost always necessary to make friends with people and gain their trust before doing business.

The United Arab Emirates has residents from more than 220 nationalities. The dominant nationalities are from the sub-continent, the Middle East and South East Asia.

The following pointers may be useful:

• Arab males and females usually greet each other with an embrace and a kiss and sometimes walk hand-in-hand. They will, however, greet Westerners with a handshake. They do not like to be slapped on the back. This may be construed as an insult

• When eating with your hands, drinking tea or coffee, or passing things by hand, never use your left hand, which is considered unclean

• Precedence is always shown for people with seniority and

visitors should also observe this. For example, an elderly or senior man should go through a door first. Similarly, if walking together, the guest or senior person should be on the right side of the group as a mark of respect

• It is considered offensive to sit with the soles of the feet or shoes facing other members of the group

• It is not as usual in Arab cultures as in Western cultures to hear the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, or to be served with a smile. Arabs reserve such pleasantries only for people they know extremely well. You may find, however, that the use of Arabic greetings and pleasantries will help considerably

• When entertaining visitors, the host should never terminate a conversation abruptly or appear to dismiss a guest, no matter how busy he or she may be

• Care should be taken not to express admiration for something owned by your host, or you may be embarrassed by having the object offered to you on the spot as a gift. This is an ancient custom, still preserved in many traditional areas.


If invited to dinner, it can usually be assumed that only Arab males will attend the function.

It is not customary for women to accompany their husbands to social functions. Women often have separate functions at the same time. If the function is for men and women together, as a foreigner you will probably be told so.

It may be taken as an affront to refuse an entertainment invitation.

It is unlikely you will be invited to a person’s house, unless the host is very aware of Western culture or you have developed a very strong friendship with the person.

If you invite a local to dine with you, do not include his wife in the invitation unless you have a prior indication that she may accept.

Business Discussions

In social conversations or in opening business conversations, there is a give-and-take of good humoured small talk, often centering around the health and well-being of the other person.

One normally inquires about the health of the other person’s companions and perhaps about his father or brothers but never about his female relatives and especially his wife.

At most, without offending his privacy, you can ask after his


Hospitality requires that you be offered tea or coffee if you are a guest.

This can be cardamom coffee, Turkish-style strong coffee or very sweet tea served in small cups.

In some of the less dynamic areas of government and business, people may be very relaxed about their own observance of time.

Punctuality will be expected of a foreigner, however, even if the same punctuality is not encountered from locals.

Visitors should not be put off by the Arab custom of having a

number of people in an office talking about various things all at once.

A person may receive several different visitors at once, or may have others enter the room in mid-conversation.


Arabic is the official language of the UAE. English is widely spoken in business circles and some people speak other languages such as French or Farsi (Persian).

Among expatriate ‘guest workers’ in more menial employment, many of the languages of South Asia and South East Asia are spoken.


The exchange of gifts is common in business circles but such gifts are usually small corporate items such as pens, brochures, etc. In a purely social setting, a small gift of chocolates, sweets, or Australiana is appropriate.

Forms of Address

Arab men are usually addressed by their first, given name.

For example, Mr Khalid bin Abdallah al-Tuwaijri has the given name of Khalid, is the son of Abdallah, and belongs to the family grouping or tribe of al-Tuwaijri.

He would therefore be called Mr Khalid in conversations.

The reverse of this is that many Arabs often address Westerners as ‘Mr Peter’ or ‘Mr John’ rather than use a person’s surname.

• Trevor de Carteret is Austrade’s Regional Trade Commissioner for WA.

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