The United Arab Emirates is a new country, less than 40 years old. It has quickly become a hallmark of booming business and tourism, especially the emirate of Dubai. Because Dubai looks so modern, it is easy for Westerners to assume that they understand the culture and the context there. Even Arabs from the Levant and North Africa often under-estimate the cultural differences in the Gulf states.
Gulf Arab culture moves at its own pace though and with its own logic. Patience and flexibility are important qualities for a successful business trip or visit to there.
Insha'Allah as a Metaphor of Gulf Arab Norms for Conducting Business
Probably the best reflection of flexibility--and likely the most important word in the Gulf--is insha'Allah. Technically, insh'allah is Arabic for "as God wills it." Its use implicitly asks for God's blessing for whatever one commits to and it prevents the hubris of assuming that one has full control over matters.
In practice, insha'Allahcan mean many things from "I'll do everything in my power while allowing for God's will" to "I'll do it unless I find something better to do." It is almost always well-meant although the cynic might argue that it provides a loophole for Saudi News fate to intervene if one is not fully committed to an action. Any commitment will be accompanied by insha'Allah (for example, "the part will be in tomorrow insha'Allah" or "the taxi will be here in 20 minutes insha'Allah").
The "insha'Allah principle," as one might call it, is vital to understanding everything to do with time in the Gulf. It is a fatalistic approach that adds "hopefully" as a standard caveat.
The Official Work Week and Islamic Holidays
To be able to schedule meetings or trips, one must understand the structure of time in the Arab Gulf states. Take, for example, two concepts that seem fixed in the West: the work week and holidays.
Friday is the Sabbath day in Islam. Male Muslims have an obligation to attend Friday noon prayers at the mosque. This means the work week and weekends turn on Fridays rather than on a Saturday or a Sunday Sabbath. But how this happens is not consistent throughout the Muslim world.
According to a 17 May 2006 article in the Gulf News, Sunday - Thursday became the official work week in the UAE in September 2006. This allowed for greater overlap with the major international financial centers. Qatar made this shift in 2003, with Bahrain following in 2006, Kuwait in 2007, and Oman in 2008. Yemen and Saudi Arabia seem poised to follow suit by 2010.
Such a change can create great confusion. People are more attached to the patterns set by work weeks and weekends than they realize. Many workers in the Gulf came from a Monday - Friday work week, shifted to a Saturday - Wednesday week, and then shifted again to the Sunday - Thursday week. And, of course, not all businesses made the change. So when in the Gulf, one should always find out the customary work week for his/her particular business sector!
Holidays are another variable in the Gulf. Most holidays are based on the Islamic calendar. Being lunar, the whole calendar shifts forward about 10 days each year and so is never in sync with a Gregorian calendar. Also, key religious holidays are not officially confirmed until the new moon is sighted. These holidays are indicated on printed calendars only tentatively and are not declared until the last minute. The actual date may well shift by a day or two from what had been anticipated. It is not a good idea then to set up business meetings on days that fall into the grey areas and, if one is flying in or out of the Gulf during these times, having confirmed reservations is a must. Many people are waiting for the official confirmation to make last minute reservations and flights fill up quickly.
How to Cope with Cultural Definitions of "On Time"
Time in the Arab Gulf countries is also a Saudi News variable construct. Events happen "in the fullness of time." Even the notion of being "on time" can mean something different from day to day and situation to situation.
How then does one deal with time commitments? One strategy is to take any time estimate and simply multiply it by four. Building expectations around this expanded figure takes the pressure off a situation. It is better to be pleasantly surprised if something happens faster than "X times 4" than to be stressed out that something is taking longer than "X." Taking other tasks along to keep one's self busy while waiting (books, puzzles, paperwork) can ease the flow of time too since almost nothing one can do will affect the time required.
Cultural definitions of time in the Gulf also mean that meetings, concerts, and other events are unlikely to start at the stated time unless they are exclusively by and for Westerners. The actual starting time of a meeting or event may be anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours later than the stated time. Major events have even been canceled or rescheduled at the last minute. In some cases, there also is a double standard - while it is the norm for Gulf Arabs to be late, some judge similar behavior by non-Arabs negatively, so being sensitive to this difference is helpful.
If one can relax into the more relaxed flow of time of the Gulf and of Dubai, then doing business and enjoying a holiday is much less stressful. It takes a little understanding of the cultural differences that mark the region, the willingness to be flexible, and readiness to wait for the "fullness of time."
Moran, R. T., Harris, P. R., Moran, S. V. (2007). Doing Business with Middle Easterners in Managing cultural differences: Global leadership strategies for the 21st Century, 7th ed. (pp. 306-348). Woburn MA, USA: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Williams, J. (1999). Don't they know it's Friday? Cross-cultural considerations for business and life in the Gulf. Dubai: Motivate Publishing.
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