Expatriates in the UAE: advance training
eases cultural adjustments
Hanan AlMazrouei and Richard J. Pech
Hanan AlMazrouei is
based in the Department
of Business and
Economics, United Arab
Emirates University, Al
Ain, UAE. Richard J.
Pech is Associate
Professor, based at the
Graduate School of
Management, La Trobe
Expatriate assignments are a fact of life in the international business world today. Managers
who can effectively work across cultures and achieve organizational objectives are
increasingly sought after as a source of competitive advantage. From a strategic
perspective, managers who can quickly and easily assimilate into the culture of their new
country provide far greater returns on investment for their employers. These managers
must successfully negotiate the many challenges that cross-cultural leadership presents if
they are to overcome the barriers related to working with members of a different culture and
manage their organization’s business and its local idiosyncrasies. Expatriate leaders can
face problems in adapting to the national culture. Problems and challenges may include,
but are not restricted to, culture, language, accents, customs, leadership styles,
communication, decision-making techniques and technology. Expatriate managers may
experience sufficient difficulties to force them to leave their assignments before completing
their tenures due to tensions and misunderstandings created by cultural clashes.
Almost 98 per cent of workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) public sector are UAE
citizens (Al Waqfi and Forstenlechner, 2012), leaving many opportunities for expatriates in
private sector jobs. The expatriate population has increased markedly in recent times to fill
a variety of private sector positions (Simpson, 2012). Additionally, national employment
laws tend to favor corporate employers and were created for a more transient labor force
(Forstenlechner et al., 2012). Due to the strong international influence, there is an
ever-increasing need to fill management positions with expatriate leaders because UAE
nationals often do not possess the experience, qualifications or traits needed to
successfully undertake the duties required of the positions (Al-Khazraji, 2009).
This article examines the issue of international deployment at the strategic level,
particularly, as it relates to the pre-departure preparation of candidates for expatriate
assignments to enhance expatriates’ as well as their firm’s ability to adapt to their new
environment. Our research provides new insights and practical advice into cross-cultural
management relating to training, adaptation and intercultural awareness in the UAE
specifically, an area not well covered in the literature. It also improves our understanding
of cultural adaptation as well as providing guidance for expatriates wanting to work in the
UAE. We surveyed expatriate managers working in the UAE, asking about their cultural
adjustments and problems that they may have faced and how these were overcome.
An increasing body of literature has sought to link human resource management (HRM)
practices and global approaches to increasing organizational performance (De Cieri and
Dowling, 2006). These practices include selection (Collings et al., 2007) and expatriate
DOI 10.1108/JBS-08-2013-0064 VOL. 35 NO. 3 2014, pp. 47-54, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 0275-6668 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 47
adjustment (Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al., 2005). Unfortunately, much of the existing literature is
of generic nature. There is still a dearth of literature to help organizations and employees
working in the UAE.
Estimates of expatriate assignments ending in failure can be as high as 70 per cent (Black
and Gregerson, 1999), while McFarland (2006) reports that 86 per cent of failures have
been linked to either poor candidate selection or unsuccessful adjustment to the national
culture. Unsuccessful expatriate assignments can be costly for organizations in terms of
loss of corporate or technical knowledge and experience (Fukuda and Chu, 1994),
resulting in a loss of the possibility to increase their business presence in the country
(Briscoe et al., 2009) or loss of existing business. There is also a personal cost to the
expatriate relating to lost self-confidence, self-esteem and reputation (Briscoe et al., 2009).
Different cultures can perceive messages in differing ways. What is correct in one culture
does not necessarily translate to other cultures (Hodgetts et al., 2006). For example,
television comedy shows which are very successful in one country can often fail badly in
others, even where the same language is spoken. While there are many factors influencing
success and failure of employment posting in the UAE, we propose to focus specifically on
the issue of pre-departure training.
Cross-cultural training (CCT) has been shown to have a positive effect on international
assignments. Many organizations have a policy of providing training programs for
cross-cultural understanding. Chang (2009) notes that these usually take the form of a
basic training package with modifications relative to the particular countries in which
expatriates will be working but argues that these modifications are often general in nature,
and although they provide advice on maintaining awareness of local requirements, they
often fail to provide advice on how to deal with these requirements.
Selmer (2002) suggests that the training sessions should be scheduled when the expatriate
is psychologically amenable to receive it and should build on what was learned in earlier
sessions. It is also recommended that training needs and audience analyses be conducted
to tailor training to suit the recipients (Chang, 2009). The more CCT is modified to suit
expatriates’ individual circumstances, the more effective the results. Black and Mendenhall
(1990) suggest that the thoroughness of CCT should depend on factors such as the degree
of differences between the cultures, the amount of contact with host country nationals and
the uniqueness of the position.
It is also suggested that CCT should be a process that begins prior to departure and
continues sequentially after arrival in the host country (Selmer, 2002). It has been proposed
that the duration of training should commensurate with the gap between the two national
cultures. In other words, the greater the cultural gap, the more extensive the training should
be (Briscoe, 1995). Waxin and Panaccio (2005) suggest that insufficient conclusive
research has been conducted into CCT, as it relates to the different aspects of expatriate
adjustment and cultural distance stating that much of the research conducted so far has
not taken into account the cultural peculiarities of the country being studied and the cultural
distance between the expatriate’s country and the host country. Our research suggests that
attending CCT improves expatriate leaders’ adjustment to the UAE culture.
‘‘From a strategic perspective, managers who can quickly and
easily assimilate into the culture of their new country provide
far greater returns on investment for their employers.’’
PAGE 48 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 35 NO. 3 2014
The UAE culture
The UAE culture is a combination of original Arabic and Islamic cultures and modern
Western style. The Western influence has come about partly due to the effect of the British
colonization of the region which ended in 1970. 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, Australian, North American, Indian,
Chinese, Pakistani and Iranian (Butler, 2009). A typical organization in the UAE may be
staffed by a variety of people from any Middle Eastern country, as well as people from
Britain, Australia, the New Zealand, the USA, India, Pakistan, Africa, France, Germany,
Canada and South America. This makes for complex communication issues, as well as
grounds for cultural misunderstanding.
International managers can benefit from an awareness that workforces in different cultures
may respond differently to the same circumstances, so that they will be able to adapt their
style accordingly (Mead, 2005). Expatriate leaders in the UAE need to adapt their
communication style to successfully manage. Therefore, to be successful, expatriate
leaders need to become competent in managing in the UAE culture. To manage local staff,
expatriate leaders need to be aware of the best communication style and adapt their
We used questionnaires to identify the effectiveness of pre-departure training undertaken
by expatriate leaders. Participants in this study included expatriate senior executive and
middle management from a variety of industries operating in the UAE. Respondents came
from a number of different countries and worked in hospitals, hotels and commercial
centers. Participants were non-UAE nationals and had worked between 2 months and 20
years in UAE organizations. The total number of respondents was 185, which represents a
response rate of 35 per cent of the original 530 questionnaires.
Indian nationals had the highest representation in the sample with 38 per cent with Philippinos
and Pakistanis also fairly well represented. Other nationalities included British, Americans,
Australians and Sri Lankans. The majority of the respondents were in the 25-34-year age
bracket with the majority holding managerial positions, followed by professionals and
executives. The majority of tenures in the UAE varied from two to nine years.
This study found that pre-departure CCT had considerable positive effect on expatriate
leaders’ adjustment to the UAE culture. One possible explanation is that the UAE culture is
little known or recognized through Western media and is quite different from most Western
cultures. Without specific information regarding their destination country, expatriates will
base their expectations on commonly held views of cultural characteristics, stereotypes in
other words. Our research suggests that organizations would benefit from designing
courses aimed specifically at cultural adjustment and understanding local
idiosyncrasies and by placing greater emphasis on expatriates attending pre-departure
training. This will assist expatriate leaders in their adjustment to the UAE culture, thus
reducing the risk of failure for the expatriate and financial as well as reputational loss
for the organization.
‘‘CCT should be a process that begins prior to departure and
continues sequentially after arrival in the host country.’’
VOL. 35 NO. 3 2014 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 49
Waxin and Panaccio (2005) venture that interaction and adjustment have less bearing on
expatriates’ success for occupants of technical positions. This is probably due to the nature
of such positions. With few or no reports to manage directly, cultural understanding
becomes less of an issue, although some expatriates did express an initial frustration when
interacting with the locals at a personal level. Many stated they were unaware that, for
instance, they should never shake hands or in any way touch local women, as this is
prohibited by the Islamic religion. Local attitudes toward alcohol were also found to be very
different from the West. When local males greet other local males, expatriates should not be
surprised to see them rub noses, but when greeting a male or female expatriate for the first
time, they will give a handshake rather than rubbing noses. Local women will shake a
female expatriate’s hand, but not a male’s. If male, expatriates should not offer their hand
to a local female. When greeting locals, greeting them with the phrase “Salam Allekum” is
a good way to foster a good working relationship. Addressing a senior male by their eldest
son’s name can also help promote cooperation, as they like to be addressed in this manner.
With many international businesses having a presence in the UAE countries, Arabic is not
necessarily the prerequisite or even spoken language in many organizations. Many
expatriate leaders deal mainly with other senior leaders who have a good knowledge of the
English language rather than lower-level staff whose English may be poorer. Knowledge of
the Arabic language is, therefore, not critical to success, although an understanding of
formal greetings and meeting etiquette were found to be extremely useful. As an example,
when dealing with UAE locals, some Western managers expressed an initial dismay at what
occurred during meetings. After introductions were made and presentations were completed,
questions would often be asked relentlessly by locals. While in Western contexts those asking
the questions would often be regarded as the most senior personnel, in the UAE the most
senior people said very little and allowed the more junior personnel to ask all the questions. This
is to allow the less senior staff to become involved and forms a part of their consultative
approach. However, in keeping with the local management style, the senior staff will make
the final decision. Furthermore, once an agreement was reached, whether verbally or in
writing, this did not actually constitute the end of the negotiation. Agreements and contracts
could be, and often were, renegotiated at any time and during every stage of a project.
Expatriate leaders should be aware that local managers in government organizations,
which are comprised almost exclusively of local staff, will use a consultative style, but in
private organizations, with a wider cultural mix of employees, they will employ a directive
management style if the staff needs firm guidance or direction or a laissez-faire style when
the staff are experienced and effective in their roles.
Be prepared to hear the phrase “inshalla”, meaning “God willing” from locals when they are not
prepared to do what you ask. This is their way of either saying they will do it when they get
around to it or that they are not prepared to do it at all, the implication being that it is God’s will
as to whether the task is accomplished or not. Also, be aware that a complete lack of a
response is an indication of refusal; however, politeness will prevent locals from directly
refusing any request outright. Pressing the matter with them will not elicit further information.
The Arabic language is difficult to learn, particularly for someone from a non-Middle Eastern
country, due to the differences in the written characters used in the language itself.
Pre-departure training should not, therefore, expend a great deal of time and effort into
teaching the Arabic language. This could be considered a waste of time, which would be
better spent on cultural nuances and etiquette.
‘‘The greater the cultural gap, the more extensive the training
PAGE 50 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 35 NO. 3 2014
A practical model to facilitate expatriate leaders’ cultural adjustment in the UAE is provided
in Figure 1. The model is an adaptation of models constructed by Deng and Gibson (2009)
and Chin et al. (2001). The content of this model ranges from the beginnings of cultural
awareness and adaptation with pre-departure training, to high-level adaptation
incorporating a higher level of cognition including the internalization of cultural practices.
Figure 1 contains three levels of adjustments, ranging from personal practices, through
social practices to cultural practices. It includes three levels of UAE cultural consciousness
and three levels of practical application. The model incorporates the practical application
of pre-departure and post-arrival training into the expatriate leadership theoretical model
proposed by Deng and Gibson (2009) and provides a link between the theoretical and the
practical. The three levels of adjustment relate to adjustment as influenced by the various
stages of learning undergone as expatriates’ experience in the UAE culture increases. A
low level of adjustment is indicated by a lack of knowledge of the culture. This level of
adjustment is improved by attending pre-departure training involving cross-cultural
awareness, environmental briefings and self-learning. Pre-departure training assists by
providing information relating to the UAE culture and can consist of videos, lectures,
role-playing and other methods of delivering information. Environmental briefings are
designed to provide a general background of the country without including culturally
specific information including topics such as the location, religions, population, climate,
language, economy and currency of the country among other basic facts. Self-learning is
another method expatriates can use to build cultural knowledge. This includes information
which the expatriates gather for themselves from a range of sources such as the Internet,
books, magazines, newspapers and other media. The motivation to consult these sources
should come from the expatriates themselves.
After this initial phase, expatriates gain further knowledge relating to cultural differences
after their arrival in the host country by taking advantage of opportunities to hear stories
related by other expatriates relating to the situations, successes and failures they
experienced and the approaches they used to overcome the challenges they encountered.
A local mentor is another way that expatriates can learn about the subtleties of succeeding
Figure 1 Facilitating expatriate leaders’ cultural adjustment in the UAE
VOL. 35 NO. 3 2014 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 51
in the new environment. The mentor’s job is to provide more detailed knowledge, expertise
and advice on the information given in the pre-departure training but which cannot be
learned properly without actually being in the country. This knowledge includes aspects
such as the language, customs, culture and religious practices of the local people. Based
on the findings of our research, developing a degree of sensitivity to the local culture
through observation and enquiry can be used as a resource to assist adjustment.
Interacting with those from the host country and those from diverse nationalities and
cultures assists expatriates. It must be remembered that expatriates will be interacting with
people from many and diverse cultures, not just UAE locals.
The medium level of adjustment includes formal post-arrival training. This contains deeper
information about the UAE culture and the skills needed to work there and should be
conducted after the expatriate has been in the country for some time, allowing them to
adjust what they have learned based on experiences they have already had.
A high level of adjustment is associated with enhanced working relationships with nationals.
The practice of developing these relationships will have been started at an earlier stage of
the expatriate’s development, but should have evolved into a more naturally occurring
practice that internalizes aspects of the culture and becomes second nature. From this
comes an awareness of time management as practiced by locals. Projects and plan
completion times will often take longer in the UAE due to a different concept of time. An
understanding of the Islamic culture and a consciousness that the local culture is more
group-based than an expatriate’s own culture may provide important help in working with
the UAE nationals. Our research strongly suggests that an awareness of these factors is
associated with a more rapid expatriate adjustment. Applying all of the stages in the model
may lead to better cultural adjustment and successful management of UAE staff and can
reduce the risk of assignment failure and early repatriation.
This study concentrates on the UAE context, in particular, as we believe expatriation to this
country has received less attention than many other destinations. Unfortunately, some UAE
nationals have become suspicious of some expatriates’ motives and behaviors because
they seemed to lack awareness and knowledge of local customs. In such circumstances,
offence can be easily and often unwittingly given. Repairing such mistakes can be costly
for both the individual and their organization. Once suspicion has been raised, it becomes
extremely difficult to regain trust.
Pre-departure CCT is strongly advised, as this was found to be a significant factor in
enhancing expatriate leaders’ ability to adjust to the UAE culture. This can assist in
mitigating the effects of culture shock by providing an overview of the UAE and its unique
culture. This training should also provide information on the culture of the organization in
which expatriate leaders will be working. The organization’s culture is often driven by the
national culture, and the UAE culture is very dominant.
Making a mentor available who could provide a voice of experience both during
pre-departure training and once the expatriate has started their overseas assignment
‘‘Without specific information regarding their destination
country, expatriates will base their expectations on
commonly held views of cultural characteristics, stereotypes
in other words.’’
PAGE 52 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 35 NO. 3 2014
would offer reassurance and an invaluable source of advice. Mentor knowledge would
provide a comprehensive knowledge repository for any organization needing to send
leaders overseas on assignment on a regular basis. Additionally, training specific to the
intended specific destination, rather than the country generally would be advantageous.
Although training related to the entire country would provide a good grounding, information
related specifically to the local area would add a new dimension to the training as local
customs may well differ from national characteristics. This will also improve trust and
respect. Pre-departure training can also include a brief trip to the host country prior to the
formal beginning of the assignment to allow the expatriate and their family, if applicable, an
opportunity to experience the culture. This will help make the transition easier when the
formal assignment starts.
Trust and respect are two key concepts that must become ingrained for all expatriates
preparing to work in the UAE. Past experiences with a few greedy Western firms has left an
indelible impression on UAE nationals. Treating foreigners with an element of suspicion is
an unfortunate but healthy consequence. Expatriates must, therefore, work to gain trust and
respect among the locals. They should not expect these to be naturally occurring
conditions on arrival to the UAE.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of pre-departure training for expatriate
positions in the UAE. The UAE is a multi-cultural society, one which is dominated by a
mono-cultural tradition-bound patriarchal system. Expatriate managers may find
themselves having to manage staff from multiple national and cultural settings. They,
therefore, need an awareness of local as well as other cultural practices. They need to
understand the art of ongoing negotiation and the importance of gaining trust before
expecting agreement or action. They need to understand different time management and
time expectations, as well as the concept and management of mission creep. Without such
knowledge, an expatriate working in a management position may find life in the UAE to be
somewhat incomprehensible and frustrating. Once local cultural norms have been
understood and have become ingrained, an expatriate manager will be far more productive
and useful to his or her employer as well as their new country of employment.
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About the authors
Hanan Al Mazrouei is from the UAE. She has a PhD from Latrobe University in Melbourne,
Australia, and a Master’s degree in HRM 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. At the moment, she is an Assistant Professor in the United Arab
Emirates University. Hanan AlMazrouei can be contacted at: [email protected]
Richard J. Pech is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Management at
Melbourne’s La Trobe University. He has a background in cognitive psychology, focusing
on problem-solving and decision-making processes within organizational contexts. His
research has been published in numerous international journals. Dr Pech has undertaken
research and consulting services for a variety of organizations in the areas of leadership
training, process and product innovation, strategic redirection, restructuring and change
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Expatriates in the UAE: advance training