Business Meal Basics for the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Here are some basics you MUST KNOW for business meals and entertaining in the Emirates.

When you are enjoying a meal in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, you want it to go smoothly and seamlessly – as if it were just another day in the life! So, I suggest you follow these guidelines to avoid an embarrassing or awkward situation for yourself, clients or business partners.


What type of food do they normally serve? The traditional meal, consisting of meat (typically chicken, goat or camel) on a bed of rice and vegetables, is served communal style on large serving dishes. Guests help themselves, one mouthful at a time, by using the fingers of their right hand only. It takes some practice. But, you can learn how to gently bounce the rice around in your hand to position it to go straight into the mouth. While it is appreciated if guests use this traditional mode of eating, spoons will be offered if guests appear to be uncomfortable with the ‘hand-only’ approach. If you find some part of the meal unappealing, allow it to be served but don’t eat it or make any comment about it.


What should be discussed at business dinners? Although business is not typically conducted over meals, visitors are likely to be entertained in restaurants or even in the home. Meals serve as an opportunity to get to know one’s business partners, which is a very important prelude to the actual consummation of a business relationship. Regardless of location, men and women rarely, if ever, dine together…but there are always exceptions.


Regardless of location, men and women rarely, if ever, dine together…but there are always exceptions.


Are there Western style restaurants there? There are a number of Western restaurants around the major cities, serving a broad range of international foods, using traditional flatware. Most of the major hotels have Western restaurants and buffets. Time Out Abu Dhabi and Time Out Dubai are great resources for local restaurant information.


Can you drink alcohol in the UAE? Avoid serving any alcohol at trade shows or public events. Although many Muslims will not drink alcohol, it is available for consumption in restaurants and nightclubs. The UAE is generally a tolerant society in comparison to other countries in the region, wanting to respect the needs of visitors from different cultures, backgrounds and religions. However, if you decide to drink alcohol in the UAE, you should do so moderately and unobtrusively. Drunkenness, in both public and private places, is considered very inappropriate, and more extreme forms may lead to charges of disorderly conduct. If you are stopped for any traffic violations and have ANY indication (smell or behavior) of alcohol consumption, you will be jailed immediately.


ANY alcohol consumption when driving will land you in jail immediately!


What do I need to know when hosting a meal? In the event that you are hosting a dinner, respect the Islamic prohibitions against pork and alcohol. If you have been invited to a restaurant, do not offer to pay the bill. If you are hosting the gathering, however, you are expected to pick up the tab along with a 10%-15% tip for service.


Is there a seating arrangement for meals? The only seating arrangement you might expect at any meal (either restaurant or traditional), is that the most senior guest will be seated to the right of the host. Some home meals may require you to eat while sitting on the floor, which can be uncomfortable for those who are not used to it. In this case, be careful about where your feet are pointed.


Why are people only using their RIGHT hand for many things? Whenever shaking hands, receiving something, or giving something (especially food dishes), you should only use the RIGHT hand, because the left hand in the UAE (and throughout the region) is considered unclean. Avoid using the bathroom during a traditional meal because of the hands-only mode of eating.


What is SHISHA? This form of smoking flavored tobacco (shisha) is very popular in the region and often done after meals and in the evenings. There are special bars / lounges which specialize in this type of tobacco experience.


Why are people working on Sunday? Failing to realize that the work week runs from Sunday through Thursday is a huge oversight by many Westerners. Friday and Saturday comprise the weekend. So, it is quite common for trade shows to open or to be open on Sundays, being the start of the work week.


What should we do differently during Ramadan? It’s important to follow a different set of rules during Ramadan. Celebrations or parties are strictly forbidden. This means, no ‘live’ entertainment, no dancing, and only background music in bars. During Ramadan, fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset each day; so, you should not plan business lunches or serve snacks in your exhibit during this time.


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