What is the right attitude for working in the UAE?

UAE’s work environment is defined as multicultural since only a small percentage of the workforce is local.

PEOPLE LEARN about Ramadan and Emirati culture at Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai in 2019. (photo credit: SATISH KUMAR/REUTERS)
PEOPLE LEARN about Ramadan and Emirati culture at Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai in 2019.
(photo credit: SATISH KUMAR/REUTERS)
An American VP, who loved Dubai, found himself three months into the job on the plane back to the US. Why?
He was sent to Dubai to introduce new working strategies to an Emirati family-owned organization. Coming from a transactional culture, he failed to understand the importance of having to first build relationships to motivate his team. He also witnessed a hierarchical management structure and a slow process to integrate change. Furthermore, the decision-making process for new business opportunities was at a much slower pace than he was used to. He tried to bring the organization “up to speed” including reviewing everyone’s employment contract, giving direct feedback, and enabling the senior level management decision-making power.
By now, several significant collaboration initiatives have been signed between the UAE and Israel. The second stage, the operational part of the collaboration, is understanding how to work successfully with your Emirati colleagues and how the Western working styles differ from those in the UAE.
UAE’s work environment is defined as multicultural since only a small percentage of the workforce is local. Out of a population of 9.5 million people, only 11.5% are Emiratis. The rest come from Pakistan (12.69%), India (27.49%), and 38.55 represent 200 other nationalities. (Global Media Insight). These different cultures mix harmoniously, but there is nonetheless a hierarchy – albeit an invisible one – in which some groups regard themselves as superior to others. Cultural awareness and sensitivity are essential in every aspect of working life, including how teams are managed and motivated, how feedback is structured and delivered and how disputes are handled.
Emirati working styles differ from the American and the Israeli in the following four categories:
Teamwork – Chances are any team in the UAE will be multicultural and a manager will have to be mindful to the different working styles. Europeans may prefer a more structured approach to teamwork, with targets and benchmarking, Israelis work quite independently as a team, Indians, on the other hand, appreciate a strong leadership. Emiratis, however, have different priorities. Loyalty and kinship are important. At work, there is usually a bond between managers and their subordinates, based on trust. Teamwork does not exist in the traditional sense, but more in the capacity of cooperating with one another in the workplace and helping someone when asked. The culture is collectivistic, people work together towards the goals of the company and individuals are not singled out for praise.
Employees expect to form a strong bond with their manager, who will guide them and become, like their colleagues, an extended family. They do not expect constant feedback (which causes loss of face) or to be singled out for criticism.
Leadership Styles – Emirati-owned companies and government businesses favor a strong vertical hierarchy. Management is more personal than in Israel and jobs and organizations tend to be molded around the people within them, rather than trying to fit an individual into a specific role. Authority is rarely delegated and even the smallest decisions are made from the top, usually by consensus. Leaders will surround themselves with friends and family members, as well as experts, who will advise on important decisions. A change of leadership could cause a systemic change throughout the company. Israelis’ flat and decision-efficient organizational culture may find Emirati organizations challenging.
Delegating & Supervising – In a vertical hierarchy, subordinates rarely replace managers in meetings and negotiations, since this would insult the other side. An Israeli accustomed to representing his organization in various business interactions should be mindful to always send a senior team to negotiate.
Supervision is usually fairly close, given the extended family nature of Emirati companies, but feedback is only given sporadically and with great care. Both Arab culture and those from the Indian subcontinent place a strong emphasis on saving face and feedback must be sensitively handled.
Sharing Information – The flow of information in the UAE is controlled. Within companies, information flow depends entirely on the corporate culture. Big multinationals with offices in the Emirates usually have flatter structures and better systems of internal communication.
Information within Emirati-owned companies may only be shared on a “need to know” basis and lower-ranking employees are unlikely to be privy to what is going on at the top. Arabs are natural networkers used to this culture and will use their own contacts for information. Expatriates need to work the system and network with as many locals and other expatriates as possible; the business community in the Emirates is relatively small and contacts are everything.
To summarize, working in the UAE, necessitates a comprehensive knowledge of both the local culture as well as a good understanding of the multicultural workforce present in the region. That said, as Dubai continues to establish itself as a major global center for the hi-tech and finance industries, business in the UAE has become more transparent in the last few years, with Western-style procedures being adopted over the old preference for networking and contacts as a means of driving business forward. However, everything still evolves around relationships, and as such, it is important to establish trust with stakeholders in the organization.
The rest depends on the will of God or, as they say in the UAE, “Inshaalah.”
The writer is a cross-cultural business consultant, with extensive experience in Israeli and UAE business culture and the founder of TrainingCQ. www.trainingcq.com