An article by Jenny Hunt in the United Arab Emirates

Helping companies to setup businesses in Abu Dhabi, I meet a wide variety of people from all sorts of industries at varying stages of the incorporation process. It still amazes how many people arrive in the UAE and expect to start winning business from day one with no understanding of the legal requirements, let alone cultural awareness.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of market research when looking to expand into a foreign market and that would include all sorts of things, such as market feasibility, competitor analysis, price comparisons, local laws, budget forecasting and local customs. I’ve previously written tips about preparing to enter the Abu Dhabi market.

The Middle East is steeped in rich Arabic culture and this extends into the way business is conducted. A cultural misunderstanding could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE’s seven Emirates. Many of the foreign companies expanding into Abu Dhabi do so with the intention of working with the government or in the Oil & Gas sector, despite the government’s Economic Vision 2030, which is diversifying the Emirate’s economy away from its reliance on oil.

If your intended clients are indeed government departments or national oil & gas companies, then you will likely have many dealings with Emirati nationals, so understanding the culture is important.

A business relationship

In Abu Dhabi, business is based on relationships before transactions. It’s very important to spend time getting to know the people you will be doing business with and building up relationships to earn respect and trust. This doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s common to have many meetings before contracts are signed. Don’t be surprised if these meetings aren’t always focussed on the business; part of getting to know someone and understanding them, is knowing about them as an individual and learning about their values, experiences and their families. After all, we all want to business with people we like. Over a period of time, and after numerous cups of coffee, each party will get to know each other and the relationship will develop. This might seem like a slow burner, but the outcome will be worth it. Providing that the goods/services can meet (or even exceed) the expectations, you can expect a long term relationship. In addition, your client will automatically become your referral network, sharing their experience of working with you amongst their colleagues, friends and neighbours who, in turn, are more likely to engage with you based on that recommendation.

The two main business languages in Abu Dhabi are Arabic and English. Foreign companies setting up here will have their legal documents created in dual text. Most counter staff in government departments speak English too. However, Emiratis truly appreciate the gesture when foreigners attempt to converse in Arabic. Even, just learning basic greetings , such as “Greetings – as-salaamu 3alaykom”, “How are you? – Kayf Haal-ak/ik?” and “Thank you – Shukran” expresses a commitment on your part to learn the language, understand the culture and customs and ultimately to doing business here long term. It is likely that you will be responded to in English, but don’t let that put you off; the more opportunities that you take to use the language, the quicker you will learn it and build your confidence in using it. From my experience, most Arabs are extremely willing to help you with the language, especially teaching new phrases and assisting with pronunciation.

Abu Dhabi is a great place to do business. I think it has a real community feel. It can be easy to access very influential and senior personnel in organisations and people are very willing to give up their time to help others. It’s a networking community and very much ‘who you know’. So, come and enjoy working with a diverse community of business people.


Don’t criticize others in public. This includes disagreeing with someone as it is very important that an Arab doesn’t lose face. As such, an Arab will agree with someone publicly, even if he doesn’t really, in order to ensure that person is not embarrassed in any way. This can cause difficulties for foreigners who are doing business here who find it difficult to gauge whether an Arab actually means ‘yes’ or is merely being polite.

Time Keeping. Whilst it is expected that a meeting will take place at an agreed time; don’t be surprised if its late. Every intention will be for the meeting to commence on time, but its often seen as more of a rough indication.

Slower pace of business. Due to the time required to build relationships, business generally happens at a slower pace. It’s much more relaxed and it’s polite to ask after your business partner’s family and to start meetings with general conversation rather than just jumping into business. Enjoy a coffee (qahwa) with your business partner and get down to the business discussions afterwards.

Religion is important. Not all Arabs are Muslims, but those who are will pray five times a day. They will take breaks during the day especially for prayer. It should be noted that a new anti-discriminatory law was passed in the UAE in Summer 2015 criminalizing any such form of expression, so respect for all religions and race is mandatory and part of the UAE’s inclusiveness policy.

Body language. Its common to see Arab men greet each other by rubbing noses. It’s also common for Arabs to stand closely when talking with you. However, for a women doing business in Abu Dhabi, you should not extend your hand for a handshake, unless you know the person well and this is acceptable to them or the other party extends theirs first.

Business dress. Emirati men will wear the white national dress known as a Kundora and Emirati women will wear the black Abaya. Foreigners are not expected to wear Emirati national dress; however, men would usually wear a business suit and women would usually wear business attire, paying particular attention to cover the shoulders and knees.

More useful phrases in Arabic for business meetings

as-salaamu 3alaykom     Greetings / Peace be upon you.

Kayf Haalak?/ Kayf Haalik? (f)     How are you?

Shukran    Thank you

tafaDDal / tafaDDalee (f)    A useful phrase which can be used to ask someone to enter the room, sit down, begin eating, accept something and so on. Literally: Be so kind as … .

furSa sa3eeda     Nice to meet you (literally: an opportunity – a lucky one).

tasharrafna    Also used as ‘nice to meet you’ (literally: we have been honoured). Respond with the same.

min faDlak     please

ana bi nafs ra’yak.    I agree / I am of the same opinion.

yasurrunee dhaalik.     A pleasure for me.

ya …     A polite way to address your business partner (e.g. ya Ahmed, ya Robert).

ashkurak 3ala da3awtak.     I thank you for the invitation.

Jenny Hunt is the CEO of Gateway Group of Companies and an advisor for businesses wishing to enter the Abu Dhabi market.

She can be reached at


Gateway Group of Companies, Abu Dhabi’s company formation specialist, helps foreign companies to set up their Abu Dhabi businesses correctly and cost effectively. By understanding clients’ activities and goals for doing business in Abu Dhabi, Gateway helps them to understand the most suitable routes to market, including the risks, regulatory requirements, and ongoing commitments so that they can make an informed decision that is right for their business. Gateway provides a professional, dedicated corporate sponsorship platform for onshore companies with a focus on providing the foreign party with security, control and 100% of the profits.

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