Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Doing business

Despite the fact that I have lived in Abu Dhabi for a year and a half, I am still discovering new things about the city that is my (temporary) home.

My journey of discovery has been helped along a great deal by the fact that first freelancing assignment has been for the city's premier tour guide. Apart from learning all about things within the city, I learnt a whole lot about the way the city works - especially the government agencies!

One of the first things I learnt was quite simply not to expect anything to be done immediately. Its considered rude to walk into someones office and start talking business straight away. Being hospitable and sociable are important parts of Arab culture, and building relationships is key.

One of my first appointments was with the Public Relations manager for the Abu Dhabi Municipality and Town Planning department. I sat down, and told him what I was looking for.

He stopped me, smiled, and said that I must have coffee first. He grinned, gave a gentle shrug of his shoulders, and said "Its the Arab way." Over the hot, aromatic Arabic coffee, we talked about the weather, about how long I had been in Abu Dhabi, and how grateful we were that we didn't have to face Dubai's incredible traffic.

We chatted about the importance of family, and how fantastic a place Abu Dhabi is to raise kids. Once the coffee and small talk were done, we got down to the business of business. By this time, we were both at ease with each other, and I got what I needed in no time at all.

I've decided I like this way of doing business, and I have discovered I quite like the Arabic coffee too, which is poured out of a special pot at great height. I've also discovered that business cards are important too - and I don't have any! Its an important exchange here, and my little pink PostIt notes with my details written on don't quite do it. An investment in business cards is required!

A fairly tricky issue for women in business is shaking hands. Traditionally this is a "male thing" and in the Islamic culture it would be highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman he is not married to. And if I, as a women, offer my hand to be shaken, I might inadvertently embarrass or offend the person to whom it is proferred. He may just ignore my hand, or cover his hand with his sleeve so that he did not officially touch me. Or if he is used to Western women, would probably just shake my hand lightly.

I decided to take the "discreet" route. I would shake a man's hand if it was offered to me first (as it was on the odd occasion). I chose not to offer my hand to men, and instead stood up to greet, and developed this funny head bob instead! Accompanied by a big smile of course. I still am not sure what is appropriate, but at least I haven't caused any offence. After all, I may need to contact these people in the future.

Another thing to get used to is the whole "open door" thing. Doors are seldom shut, especially if a man is meeting with a woman. Though I've noticed that its not really as much to do with that as it is to do with hospitality and helpfulness. Interruptions are frequent, with people sailing in and out of a meeting room on a regular basis.

Occasionally I'd be introduced (cue head bob), but more often than not, our conversation would be paused while the other business (generally quick) was dealt with. Apparently this even happens in doctors offices! People will wander in without so much as a knock! It takes some getting used to, but as I said, relationships and hospitality are key in Arab culture, so you just deal with it.

Its been fun, though I reckon I still have a great deal to learn. And I look forward to learning it!

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