UAE may not be as rich in natural resources as its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Qatar etc. but the country has been emerging as the financial capital of the Middle East region due to its open market policies and generous incentives to foreign investors. But the success of international ventures is not only determined by factors such as economic policies and legal environment but also the ability of the foreign companies to cope with cross-cultural factors. Of all the cross-cultural factors faced by foreign investors in the UAE, communication may be the greatest.
The primary language spoken in UAE is Arabic though many natives also understand and speak English. But there is not one version of English in the world but different versions such as American and British English both of which have certain unique words and similarly, accents are different, too. Even the natives who speak English, many have barely beginner level skills. Another issue that arise in communication is the fact that some cultures like UAE are high-context while others like the U.S. and U.K. are low-context. High-context cultures tend to make greater use of non-verbal gestures and cues which can be a challenge for international companies from low-context cultures such as the U.S., especially when they employ a significant number of natives.
Communication may also create problem at the workplace between the management and the subordinates. A significant number of companies in the UAE, even domestic ones employ individuals in the upper management who have mostly worked in the west prior to assuming their current positions. The communication in countries like the U.S. tends to be direct and to the point and even bad news is given in clear manner. On the other hand, cultures like the UAE and Japan believe in face-saving so as to save the dignity of the individual and communication often tends to be indirect. As a result, this may not only cause miscommunication but also tension at work between the management and the subordinates.
In cultures like the UAE, relationship building is an important part of even business. As a result, natives may not jump straight to business but instead take time to get to know each other before determining whether they want to proceed to business or not. While business and personal relationships can be mixed in UAE and some other cultures, business and professional relationships are strictly separate in other cultures like the U.S. and U.K. Thus, an attempt by some to get straight to business may create misunderstanding and mistrust between the parties because of miscommunication.
Communication issues also arise when it comes to greetings. In UAE, as in many Muslim countries, handshakes tend to be strictly between members of the same gender which may create awkward situations. For example, hand extended by an American expatriate may not be responded to by a female Emirati which may embarrass the American and he may even take it personally as a sign of rudeness.
Communication problems also arise because of cultural differences. The cultural expectations regarding gender interaction at work are more liberal in the west than they may be in the UAE. Similarly, actions or jokes that may be considerable a norm in the west culture may be deemed offensive in Emirati culture. Thus, miscommunications often arise unintentionally yet they may create serious work stress and even inhospitable work environment for certain individuals.
Western and Emirati culture also tend to differ in social hierarchy which again could create serious communication issues. In Emirati culture, one is given authority and respect on the basis of a number of factors such as age, one’s formal rank within the organization and so on. It is not uncommon to address someone formally, often using professional designations such as Dr. or simply Sir/Madam. Calling someone elder or in a senior professional rank by first name may be disrespectful in some cultures but it is a norm to call even bosses by first name in western cultures like the U.S.
Cross-cultural communication problems also arise because gestures, facial expressions, and body language have different meaning in different cultures. Similarly, the concept of personal space is also different. In UAE and many eastern cultures, business professionals or parties to a deal often invade each other’s personal space but in the west, personal space is usually limited to only those who are personally or professional really close.
It is now clear that UAE might have opened its economy to outsiders and there are favorable legal rules and economic policies, the cross-cultural issue of communication can still pose significant challenges for international companies doing business in the UAE. UAE has quite a different culture from the west where many multi-national companies come from. But over time, these issues may subside due to experience and better understanding of the cultural differences by both international expatriates and local Emiratis.