Why cultural awareness training is more important than ever in the UAE workplace

In the age of social media and changing attitudes, knowing your audience and hitting the right tone has never been more crucial

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - June 5th, 2018: Moeen Murad talks to people about the muslim faith at Diwan Mosque. Ramadan cultural night and Iftar at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Tuesday, June 5th, 2018 at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Businesses in the UAE are increasingly seeking advice about laws and cultural sensitivity, in a world in which an offensive picture or a misjudged post can be shared thousands of times within minutes.

From causing an awkward situation with an offhand comment to offending someone to the point of breaking the law, companies are treating the matter seriously enough to turn to experts for advice – and looking closely at how they project themselves to the outside world.

This week, a man published a video showing someone in tears in a customer service centre, after learning that a family member had accumulated Dh20,000 in traffic fines.

He has been arrested and referred to Dubai's public prosecution department. Earlier this year, a hotel in Barsha Heights faced a backlash when its public relations company sent out a notice advertising a "Dirty Ramadan Brunch", boasting of unlimited alcohol and pork bacon dishes.

“Usually my advice to [people who are new to the country] is that there is a fine line between what we call freedom of speech and the freedom to offend other people,” said Nasif Kayed, founder and chief executive of The Arab Culturalist, who was not commenting on either case, but speaking broadly of the realities of living and working in an unfamiliar country.

For example, it is a crime to call someone names, badmouth or disgrace them in Sharia law, said Mr Kayed.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 26 SEPTEMBER 2016. Nasif Kayed, Director of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) ID: 90560. Journalist: Caline Malik. Section: National. *** Local Caption ***  AR_2609_Nasif_Kayed-05.JPG

“In Sharia you don’t have the right to even expose someone’s shortcomings. Everybody makes mistakes,” he said.

He is one of a number of cultural experts in the UAE who seek to advise and educate individuals and businesses.

“It’s very essential now, especially with so much migration, that when we welcome somebody to our country we say to them, listen, this is what we stand for, this is our culture and these are our principles,” said Mr Kayed.

“You have to adapt.”

That does not mean losing your freedom to speak your mind, he added.

“I always say business has your etiquette, religious places have their etiquette. Public places have their etiquette. It is just a simple process of adhering to the etiquette of the environment,” said Mr Kayed.


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Cultural awareness programmes are vital in a country like the UAE with such a large melting pot of nationalities, which is said to number about 200.

And they are nothing new, having existed for many years in the UAE. But they remain constantly relevant, as new issues arise thanks to social media and shifting attitudes.

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding also runs cultural awareness courses. And with the centre’s busiest period, Ramadan, now behind it, SMCCU is now turning its attention to cultural awareness programmes. It runs the programmes year-round, but they get particularly busy in the summer months.

The Ministry of Education is one of the centre’s biggest clients. Every year, hundreds of teachers from abroad arrive in the country from abroad for the start of the new school year. And it is SMCCU senior presenter and public relations manager Rashid Al Tamimi and the other presenters’ jobs to help get them – and indeed anyone else who attends the centre’s sessions – up to speed on what is culturally acceptable.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - June 5th, 2018: Ramadan cultural night and Iftar at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Tuesday, June 5th, 2018 at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“Social media is very important,” said Mr Al Tamimi.

“And dress modestly, because at the end of the day that reflects on not only the children but also the elderly. Watch out for things that you might do at home that are not acceptable here and it could be taken against you in courts.”

The cultural awareness courses, which can either be about two hours long or up to three days if a business wants to cover the topic in more depth, cover the five pillars of Islam. And as such, Ramadan is a major part of that. The course covers the way that the holy month has changed in the UAE in recent years.

“Restaurants are open now, but discreetly. Now you can have home delivery and some of the restaurants in the shopping malls are still open and you can see dividers where you can eat. Whereas 15 years ago or 10 years ago, everything was closed,” said Mr Al Tamimi.

“We opened it because we promote tolerance and acceptance of other nationalities.”

In addition, the courses cover anything an employee would be expected to know in the workplace, such as how to greet people, as well as customs like Arabic coffee.

The centre has worked with more than 150 departments, organisations and companies in the region. Many of them are regular clients, such as the Dubai Future Foundation.

The foundation signs up people taking part in its Dubai Future Accelerators programme, which brings technology companies from all around the world to Dubai for nine weeks to work on new solutions with the government.

DFF had not had any specific issues, per se, but it was keen to plug the gaps and address any preconceptions in the participants’ knowledge.

“We wanted those companies to really succeed when they come to Dubai and work with government entities, keeping in mind that a lot of government entities have UAE national representation,” said Saeed Al Falasi, executive director of DFF.

“We get people coming from the US, from North America, from South America, from Asia, from Africa. And having an understanding of what Dubai is all about breaks down the barriers.”