Practical tips and advice for Expo 2020 Dubai exhibitors and visitors

The UAE has a diverse and multi-cultural society, and as a result the business environment can be  complex; with a multi-cultural population there can sometimes be very different expectations about how business negotiations should be carried out.  In this article Kate Midttun, Managing Director at Acorn Strategy , offers some practical suggestions and advice to Expo 2020 Dubai visitors and exhibitors to help business transactions run more smoothly.


88% of the UAE population is expatriate

The UAE has a diverse society, with around 12% of the population estimated to be Emirati.  The remaining 88% are expatriates from all over the world.  The majority (60%) originate from South Asia, which includes India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Of the remainder, 10% are from Egypt, 6% from the Philippines, and the rest from around the world.  With such a mix of international cultures, the UAE is regarded as relatively liberal within the region, and a place where different cultures sit comfortably alongside one another.

The diversity of the population, coupled with its geographical location, strategically located with access to the Middle East, north Africa, and GCC, along with its liberal trade regime, makes the UAE an attractive option for many businesses who are looking to expand into new markets in the run-up to Expo 2020 Dubai.

Although the national culture is centred around Islam, other religions and places of worship are respected, and churches and temples can be found within the major cities – sometimes alongside each other.  Outside of the cities the atmosphere is still welcoming, but perhaps more traditional.


Doing business in the UAE

The working week within the UAE is from Sunday to Thursday, although some entities also choose to operate on Saturdays during office hours.

Although Arabic is the official language of the UAE, business transactions are often carried out in English.  It is advisable to keep the English used as simple as possible to avoid any misunderstandings, particularly if you are negotiating with a diverse group of people, many of whom may speak English as a second language and won’t necessarily understand the fine line between sarcasm and humour.  Arabic is often preferred in public sector and governmental organisations.  On this basis many business people choose to have their business cards printed in English on one side, and Arabic on the other.

“Print your business cards in English on one side and Arabic on the other”

Dress code is conservative; men should wear business suits, and women should ensure that their shoulders and knees are covered, and that clothing is neither revealing nor too tight-fitting.  The Islamic dress code is not obligatory, although most UAE nationals will choose to wear traditional dress.  If dealing with government entities or attending government offices for meetings, it is customary to dress modestly, and ladies should ensure that they cover down to their wrists and ankles.

“Keep a scarf in your purse, ready to cover your shoulders if needed”

Many visitors comment on the positive energy and optimism with which is prevalent in business circles, and this is something to keep in mind when carrying out negotiations.  Doing business in the UAE can often take a slightly different form to the West.  Meetings and appointments do not always run to schedule, and decision-making can sometimes take longer than anticipated, as there is often a complex multi-layer consultation process to work through.  Patience in negotiations is therefore always appreciated and valued.

Emiratis are rightly proud of their nation and its achievements.  Visitors should therefore know that expressing a view which is disparaging to a person, a business, or the country as a whole, is not acceptable, and to defame an individual or entity on social media is against the law, even if based on fact, and can be taken very seriously by the local law enforcement agencies.


Building relationships is important

Building relationships and networks is an important part of doing business in the UAE, as in many other places. The social aspects of business are vital, and it is considered polite to enquire about a person’s health, their family’s health and wellbeing, as part of the opener to a conversation, and small gifts are often exchanged with business associates at celebratory times of the year, for example at Eid or during Ramadan.  Face to face meetings are often preferred over emails and telephone calls, which can be viewed as impersonal, and therefore it is sometimes better to take the time to schedule a meeting in person to resolve an issue rather than fire off increasingly frustrated emails.

“Face to face meetings are often the most effective way to get things done”

Personal recommendations are very much the norm, and therefore making as many positive connections as possible is an important part of business success.  Expo2020 Dubai is already offering groups and networking sessions; in May 2018 the first networking event was held for SME’s interested in ‘meeting the buyers’ and learning more about the process for bidding on contracts, and was also an opportunity to meet the people who would get to decide on the deals.


Finding a local partner

Companies and countries looking to enter the UAE market in the run-up to Expo 2020 Dubai may be keen to understand how best to establish themselves in an unfamiliar market, and perhaps one where they are relatively unknown.  It may be helpful to seek competitive advantage by finding a local partner who understands how business is done, and who has already done the hard work in creating connections and networks for your business to benefit from.  They can facilitate introductions and create a smoother path for your business to grow.


Top 5 recommendations for selecting your local partner

1- Your local partner should have an experienced team, who have ideally worked internationally as well as within the UAE, and are therefore used to working on global projects and managing projects across time zones.

2- They should be able to communicate effectively in the same language as you and your clients. The most commonly used language in business is English.

3- They should be able to use their local knowledge to advise international clients on cultural nuances and ways of working, to ensure that your business approach, marketing and communications is a good cultural fit.

4- They should have a network of local relationships and contacts to ensure smooth and effective implementation within the UAE.

5- They should have the skills to assist at all stages from strategy through to implementation.

This blog is powered by Acorn Strategy , an award-winning marketing and communications consultancy with offices in the UAE (Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the United Kingdom (London) and Australia.  If you’re a company or country wondering where to start in order to make the most of this immense opportunity, from your marketing strategy, home country and in-country planning, as well as your marketing and communications before, during and after Expo 2020 Dubai, the Acorn Strategy team can help. To find out more about our innovative strategy-led approach, including marketing strategy, communications, PR and implementation, email, or call us on +971 (0) 2678 7926.