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Working in the UAE: expatriate Expatriate

management experiences experiences
Hanan AlMazrouei
Department of Business and Economics, UAE University, Al Ain, UAE, and
Richard J. Pech
Department of Management, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia Received 19 August 2013
Revised 26 January 2014
10 April 2014
Accepted 27 July 2014
Purpose – The purpose of this study is to examine issues of skills and cultural awareness amongst
expatriate managers working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The study explores expatriate
management and leadership experiences within a predominantly Islamic context and the adjustments
that have had to be made by the new arrivals before they could effectively undertake their senior
functions within their organisations. Rapid economic growth and recent prosperity in the UAE has
resulted in the recruitment and placement of large numbers of expatriate managers.
Design/methodology/approach – Interviews were utilised to explore the experiences of expatriate
managers in the UAE. These experiences have been interpreted to provide lessons and advice for new
arrivals to the UAE, particularly those who are about to be placed into senior management positions.
Findings – The findings from our interviews of expatriate managers and leaders reveal a great deal
regarding Islamic principles and religious practices, the Arabic language, the preference for a
paternalistic management style, customs around issues of female dress and issues of time management.
A number of strategies are provided for managing these sensitive cultural issues in the workplace.
Practical implications – This research provides an important examination of the effects of the UAE
national culture on expatriate managers and how they have adjusted when managing local staff.
Originality/value – This article adds to the disciplines of management and human resources by
focussing on cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness, specifically within the context of the UAE.
Keywords Cross-cultural management, Islam, Time management, UAE, Expatriate leadership,
Arabic language
Paper type Research paper

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has undergone much commercial advancement in
recent decades, necessitating the importation of large numbers of expatriate managers
to oversee expanding networks of industries and manage rapid growth in the
government sector. Many of these expatriate managers have reported challenges and
difficulties with cultural issues while on assignment (Cerimagic, 2010). Our research is
useful for expatriates expecting to undertake employment in the UAE or other close
regional nations. We explore expatriate managers’ and leaders’ experiences while
immersed within the UAE culture. This knowledge should help expatriate managers to
hit the ground running. They will arrive in the UAE forearmed regarding cultural
Journal of Islamic Accounting and
complexities, making a more rapid contribution to their work function and environment. Business Research
Because of the unique, hybrid nature of UAE organisations as a result of established Vol. 6 No. 1, 2015
pp. 73-93
traditions and the influx of foreign managers, the context within which these managers © Emerald Group Publishing Limited
must work creates significantly different issues to managing organisations in Western DOI 10.1108/JIABR-08-2013-0032
JIABR nations. Although managing organisations in Arab countries is not a new topic, the
6,1 particular focus of this paper is specific to the UAE, an environment with a unique,
fast-changing but still traditional culture.

Cross-culture literature
Although the UAE shares many characteristics with its Arab neighbours, it also
74 possesses a number of unique characteristics. These features, partly derived from the
historical influences brought by British occupation and partly influenced by the influx
of expatriates from a large number of foreign countries, have given the UAE a unique
place in the Arab world. Expatriates have brought a significant amount of cultural
diversity. This has resulted in a unique blend of cross-cultural issues requiring
deliberate management strategies to promote organisational success.

Cross-cultural management
Cross-cultural management has been defined as global management which takes
account of differences in peoples’ behaviour in organisations and trains their staff to
work with other staff in organisations worldwide, catering for the needs of clients from
other cultures (Burke, 1983). It has been described as the comparative study of how
people in cultures and organisations worldwide behave, and of the relationships
between people from different nationalities within an organisation or environment
(Adler, 1983). There has been a great deal of focus on leadership across cultures. As
Deng and Gibson (2009) commented, most research concerning cross-cultural leadership
has concentrated on the influences that cultures have on the leaders. Expatriate leaders’
effectiveness begins with an awareness of the importance of adapting to the culture in
which they are working (Deng and Gibson, 2009).
There is a need to have an awareness of management styles relating to those
practices that produce effective results in other cultures (House et al., 2002). Katz and
Kahn (1978) pointed out that an awareness of differences in the perception of leadership
style is of high importance for expatriate leaders to enable them to adjust their methods
to suit their situation.
Managing across cultures can be described as working with the behaviour within
organisations, dealing across nationalities and seeking to extend an organisation’s
sphere of influence over many different national and cultural environments (Adler,
2008). Differences in work structures, the actions of managers and HR practices can be
attributed to differences in cultural variations between nations relating to values,
notions and principles (Olie, 1996). Managing staff from different nationalities increases
the difficulty of doing business because of the complex combination of perspectives,
methods and approaches used (Adler, 2008).
House et al. (1997) state that there have been numerous studies done regarding the
relationship between leadership and specific national cultures including many
comparative studies. Research comparing various types of leadership behaviours found
that different styles are more effective in different cultures (Smith et al., 1989). For
example, the Arabic style of leadership is influenced by religion, tribal custom and, more
recently, Western culture (Ali, 1990).
The Arabic tribal influence dictates that managers adopt a paternalistic manner,
whereas the increasing Western influence has meant that leaders are caught in a
situation where, to adapt to the influx of Western values, they feel the need to integrate
these values into their traditional style (Thomas, 2002). This gives the appearance of a Expatriate
hybrid style combining current and traditional values (Punnett and Shenkar, 1996). The management
combination of tribal influences and bureaucratic organisational structures left over
from previous colonial administrations has resulted in the adoption of an authoritarian
style of leadership (Al-Kubaisy, 1985). This style is characterised by strong hierarchy, a
lessened emphasis on efficiency, increased relevance of personal associations and a
capricious approach to regulations (Punnett and Shenkar, 1996). 75
The need to adopt a compromised style of organisational leadership recalls dialectic
theory. The world is full of contradictory points of view which often compete for
dominance. Dialectic theory involves the meeting of two opposing points of view, the
interaction between them and the outcome resulting from this (Cunha and Cunha, 2004).
Van de Ven and Poole (1995, p. 517) described dialectic theory as occurring in “a
pluralistic world of colliding events, forces, or contradictory values that compete with
each other for domination and control”. An example of this dialectic idea can be found in
cross-cultural leadership where the home country values of expatriate leaders often
contradict the values of the host country. Robey et al. (2002) explain this by stating that
memories of the old ways of acting, when combined with fresh views, can create new,
hybrid ideas. Change happens when an opposing point of view becomes strong enough
to provide a credible alternative to prevailing thought (Van de Ven and Poole, 1995). The
opposing point of view should have enough credibility to provide a good alternative to
the existing theory (Seo and Creed, 2002). Flak et al. (2008) state that two differing
opinions or beliefs act as thesis and antithesis. Where no one viewpoint is strong enough
to replace the other, both may merge to create a new position (Van de Ven and Poole,
1995), or alternatively, each continues to struggle for dominance, thereby creating a
shadow structure or bipolar mindset that may cast its conflicting influence alongside the
Although leaders need to consider business from a global perspective rather than a
more parochial view (Beechler et al., 1999), they need to recognise that some leadership
styles may prove more effective in some cultures than others. To achieve this, leaders
are required to be skilled at working with people from a diverse range of nationalities
and cultures (Schneider and Barsoux, 1997), and this is particularly so in the UAE.
Yukl (1998), commenting on research conducted in the USA, found that the difference
between more effective and less effective managers was their behavioural style relating
to task orientation, relations and participation. It can be argued that a manager must,
therefore, have a deep cultural understanding to prioritise tasks, manage relations and
encourage participation.
Leadership styles differ across cultures, and no one style suits all cultures. Having a
common language, religion and culture among Arab countries, for example, does not
guarantee similar types of approaches in individual Arab societies (Roy, 1977). The USA
influence is rapidly spreading worldwide, bringing the impact of American styles with
it (Harrison, 1994). The US management theories and practices are now commonplace
(Thanopoulos and Leonard, 1996). Managers who have received their education in the
West are increasingly being placed in positions of seniority in UAE organisations
(Anwar and Chaker, 2003), but an awareness of the effect their leadership styles can
have on local staff would be useful.
Many researchers are of the view that leadership theories particular to the USA are
less effective when applied to other nations (Adler, 1991; Hofstede, 1980, 1993; Triandis,
JIABR 1993). On the other hand, research by Jackofsky et al. (1988) found that the US approach
6,1 to leadership had some positive effects in countries with a culture of collectivism. Therefore,
the US approach may work in countries with a collective culture such as the UAE. Arabic
leaders need to be of excellent ability if they are to utilise Western work values without being
rejected by local staff (Abdalla and Al-Homoud, 2001). Shaw (1990) confirms this when he
noted the importance of acceptance by the local community if expatriate leaders were to gain
76 a mandate to manage. Gerstner and Day (1994) concurred with Shaw, stating that local
culture affects the perception of an individual as a leader.
House et al. (1997) stated that culture affects the likelihood of particular leadership
styles being effective. Work by Schoenfeldt (cited in Hunt et al., 1984) showed that
leadership styles can override the existing organisational culture. Culturally different
leadership styles can have a detrimental effect on how local staff members react to
expatriate leaders, possibly reducing their effectiveness. Ethnocentric attitudes and
the perceived culturally inappropriate actions they produce increase the likelihood
that expatriate leaders will not be accepted by local staff (Brodbeck et al., 2000). For
leaders to maintain effectiveness within the UAE environment, it is important that
they be aware of the difficulties that cultural differences can cause for their
Paternalism is one style of leadership that takes different forms in various cultures. It
is found in the Middle East as well as many other regions of the world (Smith et al., 2008).
For example, in their analysis of Turkey, a mix of Western and Arabic culture,
Kabasakal and Bodur (cited in Erben and Güneşer, 2008) noted that paternalistic leaders
take responsibility for their subordinates’ well-being, whereas Janssens et al. (1995)
stated that the USA uses an authoritarian style which is less concerned with
subordinates’ well-being and more concerned with completion of the task. Aycan (2006)
defined paternalistic leadership as a relationship where the leader supports their staff in
both their work and private lives in a similar way that a parent would and expects
loyalty and respect in return from the staff. It has been noted that the USA’s human
resources practices, styles of decision-making and socialisation interface with Arabic
management styles and culture (Anwar and Chaker, 2003). It is through this interface
that adaptation of styles takes place.
Cultural adaptation has been linked to the concept of psychological comfort
(Black, 1988; Nicholson, 1984; Oberg, 1960). Its definition has been expanded to
include a variety of factors including adjustment and interaction with host nationals
and the environment generally (Black and Stephens, 1989). Discussion of
adjustment usually centres on adaptation to the behavioural differences between
cultures (Gullahorn and Gullahorn, 1962; Torbiorn, 1982) and the most effective
methods of facilitating that adjustment such as allowing for an acculturation period
prior to beginning the actual duties of the position (Black and Mendenhall, 1990;
Black et al., 1991; Oberg, 1960; Torbiorn, 1982). Previous experience living in the
culture is also flagged as a valuable determinant for success (Dawis and Lofquist,
1984; Nicholson, 1984; Torbiorn, 1982). The need to adjust can be approached in two
different ways. Either the expatriate can adjust themselves to suit the host culture,
known as reactive mode, or they can modify the culture to suit their own style,
known as active mode. This latter mode depends on how receptive the host culture
is to allowing change (Dawis and Lofquist, 1984).
Cultural issues in organisations Expatriate
Usunier (1998) suggests that those in an individualistic society are focussed on management
themselves and their family, whereas those in collectivist cultures focus on membership
or otherwise of groups. Pathak (1986) described individualism in terms of individuals’
feelings of independence in how they conduct their personal lives and achieve their
personal goals. Triandis (1995) suggests that individuals in the same culture may
display individualistic and collectivist attitudes in different contexts, citing 77
membership of sporting teams as an example. Anwar and Chaker (2003) observed that
organisational groups in the UAE consider themselves as communities in their own
right with group connections being highly valued. They further suggested that
individualism or collectivism is a personal trait regardless of the individualistic or
collectivistic culture to which individuals belong. Triandis (1995) called those who place
collectivism ahead of individualism allocentrics, while they called those who favour
individualism over collectivism idiocentrics.
Trompenaars (1994) and Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998) developed seven
cultural dimensions. These are universalism versus particularism, individualism versus
communitarianism, neutral culture versus affective culture, specific culture versus
diffuse culture, achievement versus ascription culture, sequential time orientation
versus synchronic time orientation and inner-directed versus outer-directed culture.
Inner-directed versus outer-directed culture is concerned with the degree to which
people believe events can be controlled by their actions. The Arabic culture is more
outer-directed in nature; in countries such as the UAE, the cultural belief that every
event in life is controlled by the will of God governs everyday thinking (Quinn, 2001).
This could also be interpreted as having an external locus of control.
Anwar and Chaker (2003) make mention of how UAE cultural leadership methods
affect management practices including in those American organisations operating in
the UAE. They noted that the US model of management is in use in some areas, but that
it has been adjusted to suit the local UAE culture which emphasises different
organisational perspectives. UAE and US organisations differ in their leadership
methodologies and hierarchical structures (Anwar and Chaker, 2003). Expatriate
leaders often bring different national and corporate cultural perspectives, business
values and norms to their jobs.
Anwar and Chaker’s (2003) work emphasises the effects that culture can have on the
effectiveness of UAE businesses. They summed up their argument by noting that
managers with Western education are fairly common in UAE-based organisations and
that the culture of these organisations shows a trend towards adopting Western
management styles. They further noted that, although the US approach has not had a
great impact on the UAE style of managing, there appears to be an increasing
acceptance of this way of operating. However, in spite of this, the Arabic and Islamic
traditions still maintain a strong influence. Roy (1977) stated that Western aspects of
leadership literature are not necessarily relevant in Arab cultures. This, however, is
changing in cities like Dubai in the UAE because of the influx of Western managers. A
stronger awareness of differences is needed to reduce the incidence of ineffective
leadership caused by the application of inappropriate Western leadership styles in Arab
settings (Roy, 1977). Therefore, the pathway to success for Western business
practitioners in the corporate UAE, Anwar and Chaker (2003) argued, is to operate with
an acceptable blend of both Western and Arabic values.
JIABR The Quran holds a dominant place within Islamic society, strongly influencing social
6,1 customs (Kabasakal and Bodur, 2002). Management practices in Islamic cultures are
based on historical Islamic traditions (Ali, 1990) and set moral standards of behaviour
(Kabasakal and Bodur, 2002). Islam continues to have a strong influence on
management practice and thought and the conduct of business (Ali, 1990). For example,
Islam permits trade but does not support undeserved revenue resulting from activities
78 such as gambling (Wilkins, 2001a); however, it seems that this is honoured more in the
breach than in the practice (Ali, 1990). In addition, bribery is a frequent part of business
activity contradicting religious teachings (Ali, 1990). Another contradiction is that,
although the Quran rejects autocratic leadership and supports consultation, this is often
not the practice (Ali, 1993). Key (2000) suggests that this is not opposed by the majority
of the population because of possible ignorance of the content of the Quran. These issues
all serve to shape the complexity of the cultural landscape in which an expatriate
manager may find themselves.

UAE culture
In the UAE, which is a relatively traditionalist country, Islam maintains a strong force
in determining all aspects of life (Peck, 1986). The government has been prepared to
trade-off some of the traditional culture, however, particularly the business culture, to
attract international expertise, something it sees as vital for its economy to expand in
line with the government’s economic vision. This has resulted in something of a hybrid
business culture with the accommodation of some Western values to facilitate
cooperation with Western businesses that have now proliferated, particularly in the
major centres. The take-up of Western business values in the smaller centres has not
been as pronounced with the traditional ways still holding sway.
Wilkins (2001a) states that daily life is considered to be controlled by God, resulting
in a relaxed attitude to timelines and schedules. These are often ignored, with the belief
that the will of God dictates when tasks should be completed. This gives rise to a poor
record relating to the timely completion of objectives. Despite Islam not permitting
gambling and most people considering they are good Muslims, the practice still occurs.
Therefore, it can be said that cultural decoupling exists. The contradiction is not unique
to the UAE with people in many countries of various religious denominations engaging
in many types of behaviour contradictory to their professed faith. But confusion may
arise for the newly arrived expatriate manager, as religion and state have not been
separated in the UAE as they have in the Western world.

Economic aspect
Anwar and Chaker (2003) state that Arabic society is more collectivist than individualist
with a greater emphasis on the group. Nations with a collective culture produce
organisations with a group culture. Ali et al. (1997) found that societies with traditional
values preserve their collective culture, despite industrial and economic progress. Naor
et al. (2010) indicate that organisations with a group culture foster and reward
teamwork. Galicia (2005) describes strong bonding and trust between members of
collectivist cultures, leading to enhanced promotion opportunities regardless of an
individual’s abilities.
The UAE has a multinational population consisting of almost 80 per cent expatriate
citizens from a wide range of nationalities (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008), for
example, Australia, North America, India, China, Pakistan and Iran (Butler, 2009). It has Expatriate
been described as a good example of a wealthy state experiencing a dearth of local management
human capital, and consequently, the nation’s grand plans for economic expansion have
required the large-scale import of expatriate staff (Birks and Cinclair, 1980). Despite the
temptation to believe that this would have an effect on the local culture, there is some
belief that the opposite may be true (Dresch, 2006). Expatriate managers tasked with
leading a UAE organisation find that they need to deal with many traditional and 79
cultural characteristics of the organisation. They would do well to maintain a constant
awareness and appreciation of the local culture to successfully manage their assignment
and not inadvertently create offence.
Because of the strong international influence, there is an increased need to fill
management positions with expatriate leaders. This is necessary, as UAE nationals
often do not possess the experience, qualifications or traits needed to successfully
undertake the duties required of the positions (Al-Khazraji, 2009). Limited availability of
appropriate host country staff is a motivator for organisations to send expatriates on
overseas assignments (Pires et al., 2006). The UAE’s literacy rate of approximately 78
per cent limits the availability of local nationals for employment in many sectors of UAE
industry (Datamonitor, 2008). Most UAE nationals shun blue collar jobs, selecting
employment in public sector organisations or showing a preference for private sector
jobs with a high salary and good conditions and security (Wilkins, 2001a).
Financial opportunities for Gulf countries created by oil exports have led to widespread
investments in projects, which have created numerous opportunities for foreign businesses
(Ali, 1989). Some UAE cities, particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have been the powerhouses
of economic expansion in the UAE, supporting rapid growth in less than five years, with
Dubai, especially, attracting global interest. These two centres have expanded into areas
other than the petroleum-based market including tourism, technology and banking. Dubai
has developed into a multicultural city because of its emphasis on its financial management
(Abdulkhaleq, 2006) boasting many expatriate leaders and workers. Such mix of rapid
growth and national cultures will have an effect on the culture, operations and practices of
organisations (Terpstra and David, 1991).
Understanding the differences in local cultural aspects between their home country
and their destination, including culture, politics, economic and legal systems, may
improve the chances of expatriate leaders’ success (Adekola and Sergi, 2007).

Practical application of our research

Our aim is to provide information about various aspects of the UAE culture that may
affect expatriate management of local staff. This knowledge is useful for expatriates
expecting to undertake employment in the UAE.

Method and findings

This research used a qualitative, exploratory and non-probability sampling method
with the aim of gathering interview data from expatriate leaders working in UAE
organisations. This study used purposive judgement sampling to select participants
from a cross-section of private and public sector organisations in the UAE that employ
more than 100 people and which included large numbers of local employees. Our sample
comprised large private as well as public sector organisations employing high
percentages of local staff. Beyond these criteria, sample organisations were selected
JIABR randomly from the UAE Business Directory (2010). A major limitation of the
6,1 non-probability judgement sampling method is its potential for injecting researcher
bias, with the consequence that it may be erroneous to view the sample and, therefore,
the findings, as representative (Zikmund et al., 2010). Our goal was to make
generalisations from the sample to the greater population, but this must be viewed with
caution because of limitations of the method used for this research.
80 A total of 25 expatriate executive leaders/managers were interviewed to identify impacts,
if any, the UAE culture may have had on their management styles and behaviours towards
local staff. Both private and public sector organisation staff were interviewed. The
respondents consisted of 15 males and 10 females. Eleven of the respondents stated their age
group as 25-34 years, five stated their age group as 35-44 years, seven indicated their age
group as 45-54 years and two stated their age group as ⬎ 55 years. Education standards
were given as 11 Bachelor’s degrees, 6 Master’s degrees, 1 Doctorate and 7 non-degree
qualifications. The interviewees were Indian, Sri Lankan, Australian, British, Pakistani,
Russian, Nepalese, Iranian, the Philippino, Indonesian and American. Participants worked
in the UAE from 2 to 30 years. Tenure in their current organisation ranged from 1 to 25 years
with 3 years being the most common. Their current positions included training managers,
assistant outlet managers, assistant training managers, assistant operations
managers, quality coordinators, heads of human resources, chiefs of security, facility
managers, presidents/chief executive officers, directors of supply chain management,
project managers and store managers.

This study utilised face-to-face interviews. The most senior manager of each
organisation was contacted and provided with a participation form. They were then
contacted to confirm their participation. Each participant was contacted by telephone to
confirm their availability and advise them of the intention to voice record the interview.
Each interview, with the time reserved by appointment, was expected to take between
60 and 90 minutes and was voice-recorded to assist with transcription.
Semi-structured interviews were held to ask interviewees about their management
practices, starting with a broad question (do you agree that having an understanding of
the UAE culture is an important aspect of managing local staff and why?), followed with
a more specific question (how do aspects of UAE culture affect the way you manage
local staff?). After this, a number of open-ended questions were asked such as “how
would you identify typical differences between the UAE culture and your home country
culture and how do you handle these differences?” and “do you believe aspects of the
UAE culture such as Islam and the Quran governs work principles and the way you
manage your local staff?” Respondents were not asked to provide religious affiliations
during their interviews, so the religious beliefs of respondents are unknown, although in
hindsight, such information would have been useful (Tables I-III).

Industries No. of interviews given No. of interviews completed Response rate (%)

Hospitals 15 10 67
Table I. Commercial Centres 10 5 50
Distribution of Hotels 12 10 83
interviews Total 37 N ⫽ 25 68
Nationality No. of interviews
Indians 8 experiences
Sri Lankans 2
Pakistani 2
Nepalese 1
Philippines 3
Indonesian 1
Iranian 1
Australians 4
The USA 1
British 1 Table II.
Russian 1 Nationality
Total N ⫽ 25 distribution

Gender No. of interviews Education No. of interviews

Male 15 Bachelor’s degrees 11

Female 10 Master’s degrees 6 Table III.
Doctorate 1 Gender and
Non-degree qualifications 7 education
Total N ⫽ 25 Total N ⫽ 25 distribution

All participants agreed on the importance of understanding the UAE culture in
managing local staff. Misunderstandings related to the UAE culture mentioned by some
participants were often found to relate to local resentment at reporting to a foreign
manager, communication difficulties, different approaches to time management and
reluctance to face bad news. The phrase “Inshalla” was viewed by a few interviewees as
taking some getting used to with the chance that many expatriates may not understand
the locally accepted impact of outside influences on timelines. The notion that events are
God’s will is expressed in the phrase “Inshalla” (Quinn, 2001), implying that delays are
outside mortals’ control, and this view is in strong contrast to the Western idea of
scheduling. The following responses highlight this:
They don’t like to give undertakings that tasks will be completed on time; they will respond
“Inshall” which means “God willing”. You have to get used to that. Don’t try to force them to
give a direct yes or no answer […]. I think sometimes if you want a direct answer […]. you don’t
get it because they don’t want to say no, they will just delay their answer […]. we sometimes
have deadlines to meet and we need that immediate answer.
Additional comment from a participant:
I believe that understanding the UAE culture is critical. I think that by understanding the way
that people in the organisation think and perceive events, you can work around things and
avoid misunderstandings that can lead to dissatisfaction.
Leaders should expect locals to use the phrase “Inshalla”, when they are unwilling to
commit to completing a task within a certain time frame. “Inshalla” can be translated to
JIABR mean that the task will be completed when circumstances allow. Leaders should expect
6,1 that task completion can be delayed by any number of factors. The reasoning behind
this is that God’s will determines if and when tasks are completed. On rare occasions, it
may be that tasks are not completed at all. On the positive side, once the staff agree to a
task, they will work in a committed manner, as they feel that they are doing not just the
organisation’s work but also the work of God.
82 Local people do not like to hear bad news directly. It is usually better to approach
delivering bad news tactfully. Managers should not be quick to state disappointing
news. This was confirmed by Cerimagic (2010), whose research found that expatriate
managers could not be as direct with their subordinates as they were accustomed to
being in their home country. She also found that the locals were less inclined to hear bad
news or tackle uncertainty in a head-on manner, which is often the style expected by
expatriate managers (Cerimagic, 2010, p. 283). This relates particularly to evaluating
staff performance. Local people are sensitive to negative comments. If a manager can
sandwich the bad news in between positive comments, this will help to ease the impact.
This will demonstrate to locals that the manager is utilising a local style to manage staff
and will assist in gaining cooperation. A director explained this, stating:
In Australia you can be more open about mentioning problems. You can approach people
directly about a problem without beating around the bush. In the UAE Arab people don’t like
bad news so you have to be moderate in how far you push.

UAE cultural aspects

Participants indicated that aspects of the UAE culture affect their management of locals,
suggesting that the focus on group culture was largely responsible for any significant
differences. One possible reason for this is that working in the UAE, with its Arabic
influences, requires a strong awareness of the more traditional group aspects of the UAE
culture. One interviewee stated that management decisions require the inclusion of the local
staff in the process in a collective way to give them a feeling of involvement. This encourages
their participation and engagement and maximises the chances that decisions will be
supported. This focus on the group can affect staff management by expatriate leaders. With
most of the managers coming from cultures where the individualistic style is dominant,
awareness of the collectivist approach will assist these leaders to refocus their style to suit
the local culture. Expatriate leaders need to be aware of the dominance of group culture in the
UAE and how this affects management situations. For example, locals immediately join
together in discussion groups in meetings when faced with the need to address an issue.
Also, when a local individual needs to approach their manager to discuss a problem, they
will usually bring two or three colleagues to support them, even where the issue does not
necessarily relate to them directly. Leaders need to align their practices with this group
cultural norm to maximise staff effectiveness.
Anwar and Chaker (2003) state that Arabic society is more collectivist than individualist
with a greater emphasis on group aspects. Ali et al. (1997) found that societies with
traditional values preserve their collective culture, despite industrial and economic progress.
A comment from one respondent:
You need to think more than you act. If you are making management decisions you have to
look behind the decisions and make them more collective so they will be acceptable to the local
staff. If the staff feel they are involved they are more willing to contribute.
Arabic language Expatriate
Language was rated as producing the greatest degree of complication for staff management
management practices. This may have been due to its high profile. It is usually the first
factor that comes to mind when considering cultural factors that may affect staff
management. Ability to communicate effectively with local staff governs how well they
can be managed, so language ability would be seen as the most notable aspect. Verbal
communication was mentioned as an important aspect of the UAE culture in managing 83
local staff. Because the culture relies more on verbal communication between
organisational members rather than written language, this would be noted by
expatriates and stated as one important aspect of managing staff. Having an awareness
of non-verbal communication can improve the effectiveness of managing local staff. For
example, shaking hands with local women is not acceptable. Another noteworthy form
of communication is silence. In response to a question or statement, this can usually be
taken as a sign of tacit agreement or approval. Disagreement will usually be spoken.
Managers should, therefore, not be too concerned when they receive no verbal response
to their requests to take some type of action.
Expatriate leaders working in the UAE found that the Arabic language influenced
their management ability because of a lack of English skills amongst many of the local
employees. Chang (2008) observes that learning the local language of the host country is
beneficial for work. Many local Arab managers have poor English skills, particularly
written English, relying on their staff to draft written correspondence. With Arabs
displaying a preference for verbal interaction rather than written correspondence
(Wilkins, 2001b), expatriate leaders with a command of the Arabic language are better
placed to work with local staff. Significant resources are, therefore, needed to ensure that
expatriates are provided with the best possible opportunity to learn the host country
language. However, knowing the language does not necessarily mean comprehending
the culture (Caligiuri et al., 2001). Although not specifically related to the UAE national
culture, language difficulties are also an important aspect of managing UAE local staff.
This was not always found to be problematic, however, as pointed out by one
In our industry English is the accepted language. Most of our customers speak it so this is not
so much of a problem. The only difficulty is understanding the different accents. Most of the
staff here are Indian, like me. This means I can talk to them in a common language but
sometimes the range of accents can complicate the communication process, even when
everyone is speaking in English.
Successful acquisition of the local language facilitates expatriates’ ability to achieve the
objectives of their roles. Participants identified a lack of knowledge of the Arabic
language as a significant factor, making it difficult to deal directly with locals.
Languages can take a long time to master, however, as learning them involves a number
of factors such as individual ability, education, the importance the organisation places
on language ability and other environmental factors. Language is especially difficult to
learn because individuals must also be able to learn local expressions (Miroshnik, 2002).
The Arabic language may also be more difficult for someone from a non-Middle Eastern
country to learn because of the differences in the written characters used in the language
itself. Expatriates should as a minimum learn some basic phrases such as greetings,
salutations and other commonly used expressions. Locals appreciate when non-locals
appear to have, at least, made some effort to speak a little of the language. This helps to
JIABR open doors. Leaders will find that learning some of the language will engage locals more,
6,1 which will encourage expatriates to expand their Arabic vocabulary. They will usually
find that the top local executives will have a good grasp of the English language with
many having received a tertiary education overseas. For junior staff, expatriates may
find the language gap to be a little wider. In this case, making use of a translator will help
to smooth the way.
Language ability facilitates communication and, therefore, assists in building working
relationships. This, in turn, assists in achieving objectives (Chang, 2008). Interviewees
ranked communication as a high cause of cultural misunderstandings, and language
difficulties were identified as a major part of this. Interviewees suggested that they
made use of translators to overcome this problem. Differences between sectors,
industries or organisations may account for difficulties in communication with some
being more reliant on Arabic than others. Variations in communication can complicate
expatriate leaders’ roles by reducing their effectiveness in delivering information to
their UAE national staff.
Interviewees believed that communicating with national staff in the UAE is different
to communicating with their home country staff. This may possibly be the result of
different job requirements to those the expatriates are used to with, perhaps, greater
responsibility, more seniority or different duties affecting communication. Different
cultural attributes of the staff and differences in industry cultures may also have a
mitigating effect. This creates problems in communication, which affects the way they
manage their local staff. An Australian manager highlighted the differences, saying:
In Australia you can face a woman and tell her she made a mistake. You need to do it politely,
of course, but directly. In the UAE you have to step back, you can’t tell her directly.

Custom of female dress

Many of the participants mentioned that the custom of dress, particularly among
women who were almost completely covered, including their faces, was surprising.
Williams et al. (2013) note that the custom is for Emirati women to wear an abaya, or
black, full-length covering garment, and a sheyla, a thin headscarf to cover the hair, in
public. Dealing with females can be more difficult when they wear a burqa, which covers
them completely, sometimes even their eyes. New arrivals may not be accustomed to
seeing women completely covered in the UAE. Some interviewees believed the custom
had an effect on staff management. The culture in UAE is more traditional and strict and
in keeping with its Arabic heritage, so the conventional custom of female dress is still
Those who have lived longer in the UAE may have become accustomed to the female
standard of dress. Those not used to the style of female dress may actually find it
intimidating unless they are sure of the appropriateness of addressing females attired in
this way. Managers who find approaching women difficult because of their style of
dress may opt to approach males instead. This will limit their management options,
particularly where females are concerned. Local males also have a particular style of
dress, with a white full length robe and accompanying headdress that does not cover the
face. This attire makes it easier for expatriates to deal with local males. One commented:
The UAE is a country which is rapidly advancing with inputs from all over the world. This Expatriate
would seem to be placing pressure on the local customs and traditions and yet the local people
seem to be able to maintain these in the face of all this change pressure. The UAE appears to management
have preserved its heritage. You can see this because the local women wear abaya and sheilla. experiences
However the Indian females here in the UAE dress totally differently from the local women. As
you can see they wear their own traditional clothes called Sari. Also, women have more
freedom in India to interact and be approached whereas in the UAE they cannot be approached
directly. 85

Time management
Differences exist between attitudes towards time management in the UAE and most
other cultures. Western countries, for example, place a greater emphasis on timeliness,
whereas the people of the UAE have a more relaxed approach to time management.
Organisational culture in the UAE is based on the national culture which has a more
casual attitude to time. Badawy (1980, p. 57) went further, stating, “At worst, there is no
concept of time in the Middle East; at best an open-ended concept”. In the UAE, the
attitude towards time management is long established and habitual. Therefore, the
attitude to time management in the UAE has retained its customary focus. For example,
tender submission deadlines are sometimes missed because of the relaxed attitude to
time management, and this can be a great source of frustration for expatriate managers,
as indicated by 85 per cent of respondents.
As explained by interviewees, time management is not the primary focus for local
staff. They take their own time to complete tasks, as this has been a traditional part of
the culture. Managers should expect their staff to not adhere to deadlines for tasks,
unlike in the West where timelines are considered to be of paramount importance. It
may, therefore, be prudent for managers to build extra time into their project timelines,
where possible. Respondents stated that all projects should include surge capacity to
hedge against “inevitable” time delays. Those who do not factor time delays into their
projects run the risk of clashing with their staff over uncompleted tasks and delays.
Such inevitable tensions can harm working relationships and make it increasingly
difficult to manage local staff and achieve objectives.
Nonis et al. (2005) argue that an understanding of the link between cultural attitudes
towards the management of time and organisational outcomes is critical to managing
effectively. If expatriate leaders maintain an awareness of the local UAE attitude
towards time management, they will manage more effectively.

Effects of Islamic principles

Ninety-five per cent of the respondents stated that the Islamic religion and the Quran
govern work principles and the way they manage local staff. This may be due to the
nature in which the UAE maintains its long-established religion and religious values.
The UAE follows Islamic principles. Almost all interviewees indicated that they
believed that the culture is based on religion, citing prayer breaks and Ramadan in their
responses. Expatriate leaders must be prepared to allow locals an opportunity to pray
once in the afternoon, in keeping with their religious obligations, throughout the year.
Allowing a little extra time in the daily schedule to accommodate this break will help to
facilitate good working relationships. Managers need to remember that they are
working in a culture dominated by Islam and should not attempt to impose their own
cultural values on the local staff to achieve business objectives. The UAE organisational
JIABR culture is motivated by the national, Islamic culture which has a strong work ethic,
6,1 supporting the principle of staff working hard and professionally as the basis for
personal and social satisfaction. The Islamic work ethic strongly influences Emirati
organisations (Yousef, 2000). Nations based on an Islamic culture reflect the principles
of their religion in their attitudes towards their work ethic, which, in turn, reinforces
their faith (Ali and Al-Owaihan, 2008).
86 One participant stated that if you do not understand the Islamic basis of the culture,
you risk offending the local staff by not allowing them breaks to pray. Another agreed
on the need to not offend people but suggested that some staff may take advantage by
taking longer than necessary prayer breaks. Another one commented that they believe
that Islam governs work principles but that occasions such as Ramadan should not be
used as an excuse to not work hard because of tiredness from the fasting which is
required at this time. The holy festival of Ramadan requires knowledge of particular
religiously related behaviour. During this time, which usually lasts about one month,
Muslims are required to fast during daylight hours. This obviously includes working
hours. Expatriates need to respect this and refrain from eating and drinking in front of
local staff at work. Expatriates failing to do so run the risk of alienating their staff, which
will lead to a deterioration of working relationships, as locals will feel that the expatriate
does not respect their religion.
Some of the comments supporting the notion that the Islamic religion and the Quran
govern work principles, included, “If you’re working in an Islamic environment you
need to be mindful of the religion by giving staff a break to pray”. Another manager
supported this view saying, “You need to give staff freedom to worship”. Another
participant said that Islamic principles govern work principles, citing an occasion where
a project due to be conducted during Ramadan had to be extended beyond Ramadan
because of the shorter working hours that staff worked during this time. Another one
agreed that Islam governs work principles saying that:
Every person has the right to pray. You have to respect the country’s culture and the religion
of Islam. For example, at Ramadan time, local staff work less hours so they may go home early.
We find other staff to cover for them. We have flexible hours for staff during Ramadan.

Interview responses to the custom of female dress may have been filtered because of
sensitivity towards this topic. Respondents may have considered it too personal to
provide answers that were fully truthful for fear of causing offence. They may have
considered that it would be better to offer guarded responses in an effort to avoid any
potential risks to their jobs, despite being guaranteed anonymity. It is also possible that
this question may have been open to two interpretations, being either that the
respondent does not work with female staff, or that they believe that the custom of
female dress has no effect on their staff management. Anecdotally, with one of the
authors being a male of Western origin and having worked in the UAE, it was found to
be initially disconcerting attempting to negotiate work issues with women completely
covered from their feet to their eyes. In the West, we constantly seek feedback from
others by observing facial features, and once these features have been removed, such
feedback is non-existent, forcing us to make our own conclusions in the absence of such
much needed information.
It is also important to recognise that, although interviewees are products of their own Expatriate
and their organisation’s cultures, they are also individuals. In other words, it must be management
recognised that each individual should not be expected to conform entirely to the norms
of the culture to which they belong.
Expatriates’ interest in the culture, willingness to immerse themselves and build
relationships with locals is an important consideration (Tarique and Caligiuri, 2009).
Some expatriates are more willing than others to engage themselves with the local 87
culture, thus creating differences in responses.
Some organisations operating in the UAE are comprised largely of expatriate
managers as well as expatriate employees. These managers may interact only
occasionally with local people, living a life quite removed from traditional UAE society,
and therefore, it was one of the selection criteria that respondents must manage local

Implications for practice

Expatriate cross-cultural management relates to a number of different managerial
functions including communication, particularly related to the context of the UAE
culture. It provides greater comprehension of the effects of national culture on expatriate
leaders’ management of UAE local staff. This study adds to our understanding of
cross-cultural management and human resources by focussing on cross-cultural
leadership and cultural awareness. Management practices are not universal; they are
dependent upon the context and people with which they must be employed.
This exploratory research offers some key factors relating to the identification of
cultural issues that expatriate leaders face in the UAE as well as providing useful
guidelines for managing cultural differences. This study offers guidelines that will lead
to improved HR practices that supports expatriate leaders and enable them to function
most effectively within the UAE culture.

The aim of this exploratory study was to investigate expatriate leaders’ perceptions of
culturally based factors influencing management practices in UAE organisations.
Based on our responses, the following recommendations are offered as a possible basis
for managing within the UAE cultural context.

Individual adjustment
Expatriate leadership and management practices can be assisted by having a clear
understanding of what is required and working to achieve the expected outcomes.
Expatriates will benefit greatly by knowing what is required in relation to the laws and
customs of the country itself and making an effort to abide by and respect these at all
times. It is easy to give offence, and ignorance is no excuse. One must always show
respect for the beliefs and practices of the incumbent culture.
Showing respect for religious beliefs will also be welcomed by locals. Fitting in,
rather than isolating oneself, and engaging in behaviour seen to be within an acceptable
range according to the customs of the host country is also deemed to be helpful.
Acknowledging the collective/group aspects of the culture will also greatly assist
expatriate leaders in their understanding of and dealings with UAE locals. Keeping
these aspects in mind will strengthen expatriates’ ability to manage within the culture,
JIABR strengthen working relationships and maximise their potential in their UAE
6,1 assignment.
Any attempts at learning and speaking the local language are greatly appreciated by
local employees and often rewarded by instilling a higher degree of cooperation and
Local staff are most accustomed to a paternalistic style of leadership and may seem
88 confused when confronted by an expatriate leaders’ lack of paternalistic leadership
behaviour. The paternalistic qualities of caring for staff, showing regard for their
feelings and showing concern for any personal issues, will facilitate more rapid
acceptance of the expatriate manager by local staff.

Factors affecting expatriate leaders’ management mentioned during interviews were
Islamic religious practices, time management, custom of female dress, a paternalistic
style of leadership and understanding the UAE culture. In this exploratory study,
expatriates discussed their perceptions of the UAE culture and issues they faced in
managing local staff. Participants nominated the issue of language as the most
significant challenge affecting their ability to manage staff in the UAE.
Trust is a critical factor in any dealings with UAE nationals, and this must often be
established before any real progress can occur between an expatriate manager and his
or her staff. Such trust can only be instilled through an understanding of the local culture
and by displaying professional behaviour that demonstrates respect and awareness of
cultural and religious beliefs.
The researchers felt that some respondents were reluctant or hesitant to fully explain
cultural differences and their impact on their management practices. This was viewed to
be due to cultural sensitivity. Under such circumstances, an anonymous survey may
elicit more detailed responses rather than face-to-face interviews.

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About the authors
Hanan AlMazrouei is from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She has a PhD from Latrobe
University in Melbourne, Australia, and a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management from
Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. She has worked in the UAE for nine years, seven
in the telecommunications industry and two in municipal services as a consultant. At the moment,
she is an Assistant Professor in the United Arab Emirates University. She also works as a
Business Consultant in cross-cultural management in the UAE. Hanan AlMazrouei is the
corresponding author and can be contacted at:
Dr Richard J. Pech is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management at Melbourne’s
La Trobe University. He has a background in cognitive psychology focussing on problem solving
and decision-making processes within organisational contexts. His research has been published in
numerous international journals. Dr Richard J. Pech has undertaken research and consulting
services for a variety of organisations in the areas of leadership training, process and product
innovation, strategic redirection, restructuring and change management.

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