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  • Writer's pictureMiddle East Center for Reporting an Analysis

Arona Maskil: Communication, Posture and Business in the UAE


According to Edward T. Hall, in a normal conversation between two persons, less

than 15% of the social meanings is transmitted by words.That leaves 85% for non-

verbal communication and when you are interacting with people from another

culture, even your body language has a different meaning.

When interacting with people from other cultures it is important to understand the

body language of your business colleague and not to project your own cultural

meaning onto a gesture, facial expression, or vocal inflection. What you think it

means may, in fact, be quite different from what is intended.

In the UAE, every part of your body has meaning when communicating with your potential

business partners.

What does your smile say about you?

There are cultures which encourage smiling in a business setting as it conceived as

unprofessional, and yet in other cultures, lack of a smile conveys aggressiveness. In

the UAE you need to find a balance between the two. Smiling too much might be

perceived as untrustworthy, what usually works is a genuine smile that conveys

confidence and authenticity.

Eye Contact

In the U.S. if you do not look into a person’s eyes, you are perceived as dishonest, in

Japan, staring is considered impolite. In the UAE, you need to pay careful attention

as some prefer strong eye contact as a show of respect, while others prefer that you

politely avert your gaze when speaking to them.

If you can, observe how other people around you use eye contact. Are they looking

down or directly into another’s eyes?


UAE, and especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the international business hubs of the

regions and as such English is common business language.

The Emiratis speak Modern Standard Arabic. If you are planning on building

business relationships in the region, you will do well to learn several phrases in

Arabic, as this conveys a respect for their culture and language.

People attend the GITEX events on December 8. (Seth J. Frantzman)

Communication style

My recommendation for conversing with your Arab business partners is to avoid

dominating the conversation. In much the same way as decisions take longer to

reach, they also take their time to think before articulating an answer.

Be careful crossing the line between a business relationship and a personal

friendship. In the UAE relationships are more formal than in Israel and take longer to

cross the threshold, so, until told differently, address people by using their official

titles (Professor, Dr., Sheikh etc.) and their full name. Furthermore, the title Your

Highness must be used for members of the Royal family and Excellency for

government ministers.

Physical Space

In western cultures it is not common for men to be affectionate towards each other.

Physical space between people In the UAE is much more reduced than in the West

and there is more contact between men. Shows of affection such as men holding

hands, wrapping arms and shoulders, and clapping each other on the back, are

signs of a friendship, not sexual connotations. You, as a foreigner, are not expected

to act in the same fashion.

Greeting etiquette

The form of a greeting is a short and soft handshake when introducing yourself and

when leaving. A firm handshake, as in Western countries, can come off as


If the meeting is held in an office you should greet first the older person, even if he is

not the host, but if the meeting is held outside the office in a “majlis (sit down) or in a

“diwan”, someone’s private residence, you should shake everyone’s hands counter

clockwise. You do not have to offer your business card at the beginning of the

meeting, wait for them to give theirs.

Regarding women, men should avoid offering Muslim women handshakes or any

other physical contact, a gesture of courtesy suffices. According to Muslim culture,

men are expected to respect a woman’s comfort zone, and this takes the form of

refraining from all forms of physical contact.

An especially important cultural faux pas to avoid: Never give your left hand as a

greeting. In the UAE, as in many Muslim cultures, it is considered rude to greet

another and offer things with the left hand. The left hand is considered impure as it is

used for cleaning after using the bathroom.

Business cards - Different cultures have different etiquette on exchanging business

cards. In the East as well as in the UAE, business card exchange follows a specific

protocol. You should take the other person’s card with both hands and examine it

carefully before putting it away. In return, offer your own card with your right hand

and make sure that the Arabic side is facing up.

The rest of your body

In the UAE, it is all about portraying confidence. You want them to see you as a

confident businessperson. Stand straight, with your feet slightly apart to project an

image of confidence but without intimidation.

Avoid slouching in a business meeting, in the formal business culture of the UAE it is

perceived as lazy or have something to hide.

On the other hand, leaning back in your chair and placing your hands behind your

head, you will be perceived as being too casual.

The best and the most professional posture is leaning slightly forward over the desk.

You want to appear respectful by focusing on what the other person is saying.

Furthermore, avoid sitting cross-legged with your shoe pointing out towards your

UAE business colleague or showing the soles of your shoes, as this is also

perceived as an insulting gesture.

Lastly, in a negotiation meeting, try to avoid clenching your fists, crossing your arms

tightly, jiggling your feet or fiddling with your clothes. Do the exact opposite, adopt a

relaxed yet upright pose with your right hand holding your left wrist.


I am aware that there is a lot to remember and I am certain that the Emirates will be

forgiving if you make mistakes due to cultural differences.

That said, being culturally competent means being aware of the differences, keeping

an open mind and understanding that what we see as the norm of behavior in our culture can be quite different in other cultures.

Arona Maskil is a Cross-Cultural Business Development Consultant and Virtual Leadership and Multi-cultural Team Trainer at

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