View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What’s the Time in the UAE?

What is the time?
The UAE is 4 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

All regions and emirates (states) are in the same time zone.

There is no time change throughout the year for Daylight Saving.

Asking the Time in Arabic
The key words in asking the time in Arabic are:
What time is it?--Kam al sa'ah? (literally ‘What is the hour?)

Emirati Time
“When may I have an appointment?” I asked my dentist.

He said, “Come next Wednesday morning.”

“But at what time will you make my appointment?” I asked.

He said, “I don’t make appointments. Nobody sticks to them.”

Not all medical and commercial services run like this as there is an increasing move towards the making of appointments.

Emirati (Arab) notions of time are fluid, less structured and not as precise as in Western cultures. Punctuality is not an important Emirati value. The advantage of this is that this keeps the options open and gives more flexibility to accommodate unforeseen circumstances. For clients it can be frustrating and involve lots of waiting.

If you make an appointment for Emiratis to see you, don’t expect them to be there right on the dot.

While meetings times may be fluid the five times of prayer for a Muslim are not as flexible. It might pay to make an appointment that is not close to prayer time.

Time Travel Tips
Here are a few more pointers (provided by an educational marketing group):

It is essential for business visitors to arrange appointments well in advance and to be punctual. However, as elsewhere in the Middle East, it is usual to expect to be kept waiting and for meetings to be interrupted by incoming telephone calls, visitors etc. The concept of time is rather fluid in the Middle East and people are often late for meetings. Be patient if your host is delayed as this can easily be due to an unexpected (and possibly more important) other visitor.

Early morning appointments are not a good idea.

If you are late for an appointment ring and tell them you are held up. Generally they will wait for you.

It is recommended that you do not come to the region on business in summer (July/August) as most people are on holiday.

Similarly, coming to the region during Ramadan is not advisable. Muslims are not permitted to eat, drink or smoke between dawn and dusk during the month of Ramadan. It is not recommended to do business in the UAE during Ramadan as the business hours are short.

Time Out in the UAE
Check the working hours of a business and remember that many of them still close down for lunch and siesta. The advantage of this is that businesses will often stay open longer in the evening.

‘Don’t they know it’s Friday’ (by Jeremy Williams) is the title of a good book on cross-cultural considerations for business and life in the Gulf. Before 2006 the weekend was Thursday and Friday but now it is Friday and Saturday.

Time for Education
An ELT newsletter (November 2001) includes an article for expatriate teachers of adult Emiratis and is worth quoting:

“The issue of time is a controversial topic in Arab adult education because of its ambiguous nature and perception in this part of the world. The Ministry of Education states that attendance in class is mandatory. Almost all public and private institutions mandate a strict policy of attendance. However, in an attempt to find a midpoint on the issue of time, a late penalty for up to 10 minutes is incorporated into most adult education programs.”

“Late policies and attendance can often be more difficult to enforce as adult students returning to school are often juggling serious commitments from families, private businesses, and at times their workplace. Because family obligations to relatives and businesses take precedence over all other obligations, it often is one of the biggest contentions faced in adult educational contexts. Therefore, adult learners see the concept of time, timelines, and time frames as being subjective references in comparison to the programs, which view them as objective policies to be adhered to.”

“The concept of time affects the adult learner, who at times finds it difficult to understand the differences between missing 5 minutes versus 25 minutes of class instruction. Perhaps, it is because the UAE is considered a "present time" society, as the past is unchangeable and the future is the will of God.”

Understanding Time in the UAE
Jeremy Williams in Don’t they Know it’s Friday? provides these notes to help expatriates and visitors to the Emirates understand the cultural differences towards time:

“Westerners normally have no concept of the absolute duty that Gulf Arabs have towards family situations which are, in general, far greater than those undertaken, or expected, in Western society. ‘My brother telephoned and asked to see me, so I had to go to him; I am sorry I had to miss our meeting’ is typical of the remark a Gulf Arab might make to a Westerner after a failed meeting i.e. genuinely believing that the explanation - because it involved a family member - would be understood, and failing to comprehend that for the Westerner such a reason would not be good enough. The Westerner would have been far less bothered if a phone call rearranging the meeting had been received, but the experience of almost all Westerners is that most Gulf Arabs do not reschedule meetings beforehand - they simply fail to appear when expected. 'Time' is therefore a major area of culture clash.” (p39)

“For the Muslim, and others, God alone controls the future and therefore any attempt to lay down what shall happen in the future, such as agreeing a date or time, is presumptuous and, for the very religious, borders on the blasphemous. In historical terms, life in the desert or at sea was without watches and diaries and `time' was dictated by the sun and the call to prayer. There was no need for, or inclination towards, more precise arrangements. ‘Speak to me after the dawn prayer tomorrow’ was a sufficient remark in terms of planning.”

“The more cynical Westerner will observe that when a Gulf Arab wishes to be on time, then perfect time-keeping is the norm. Gulf Arabs are always 'sensible' about their interests, as are most people, anywhere.” (p43)

“Westerners are usually hopelessly unaware of the personal relationships and general local undercurrents which dominate Arab decision-taking in the Gulf. They are therefore well advised to be patient. But they should always be ready to act very quickly once an Arab decision to proceed has been taken. This can occur quite without warning and usually follows the gaining of access to an important, and normally very busy, decision-taker. As a rough guide, 95% of time spent in Gulf business activity will be spent waiting, followed by a 5% period of intense work against impossible deadlines.” (p44-45)

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: What is the time? The cartoon is from Don’t they know it’s Friday?