What Businesswomen Should Wear In the Middle East

What Businesswomen Should Wear In the Middle East: Advice from the Corporette ReadersI recently got a great question from an old friend, T, that I thought was very interesting and worth a discussion here — she’s wondering what businesswomen should wear in the Middle East (specifically Qatar, pictured with a stock photo here).

Just curious if you have done any posts on Corporette on appropriate wear for women who have business trips in the Middle East? I just found out that I have to present at [a conference] in Qatar in [a few weeks’] time (the audience will be 99% Qatari men) and give a private briefing to [a VIP who can’t attend the conference]. Internet searching has revealed that I can wear Western attire (no need to don a headscarf, etc.) but on the very conservative end — elbows, knees, and cleavage covered. But I’m still trying to get a handle on how to translate that into actual outfits that will look professional and appropriate to this audience. Perhaps this would merit a discussion to see if any other readers have had business on the Arabian peninsula and their experiences as to what sort of attire they found appropriate? Thanks in advance!

Wow — first, huge congrats to my old friend T; sounds like you’re rocking it — and second, it is a very interesting question. (I’m feeling a bit like the luggage salesman in Joe vs the Volcano who, upon hearing of the great adventure Joe is about to embark on, says, “That’s very exciting … as a luggage problem.”) From my Internet research, the answer seems to vary widely according to the country — Qatar (particularly Doha) looks like it’s very Western, whereas Saudi Arabia is much more conservative, obviously, requiring a long dress. Also from Googling, I’ve seen a lot of images of people at conferences in Qatar where the women wear pantsuits (interestingly, with a lot of peep-toe shoes, which I would have thought would be a no-no — I would stick with closed-toe shoes myself).


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what to wear to a business conference in Qatar: a linen-blend blazer like this one from Trina TurkAccording to Weather.com, Doha looks like it will be in the high 90s over the next few weeks, so to me this says “buttoned-up linen blazer” with shirt or blouse with a crew neck, boat neck, or some other high neckline. Rue La La* seems to have a ton of linen blazers from Lafayette 148 New York, in case anyone from America is looking to purchase. (I happen to know that T is on the other side of the world so I won’t hunt for too many things for her to buy because they probably won’t make it to her in time.)

In general I would say to look for the kind of pantsuits that Angela Merkel, Indra Nooyi, and Hillary Clinton tend to wear — very high-necked and closed up, possibly more colorful on the top, and indubitably appropriate. (This Trina Turk jacket*, pictured, is lovely if you like orange — and it’s on sale at Lord & Taylor!) If you want more of a regular suit with a matching top and bottom, picture #5 from this slideshow on Time Out Doha shows a number of women wearing pantsuits with high-necked t-shirts and is probably a good basic look if that’s at all doable for you from a comfort standpoint with the heat. (It’s worth noting that this picture is in a slideshow for a red carpet affair, with lots of women wearing short skirts and very Western-looking cocktail attire.)

Readers, how about you — have you been to the Middle East on business? What did you wear — and what would you advise my friend T to wear? If you’ve been to multiple places on business, how would you break down what’s appropriate as business attire in different places? (It’s been ages since we talked about where to shop on different continents — anything you would definitely recommend to someone to pick up once you’re in the locale itself rather than try to outsource or bring from home?)

Further Reading:

Picture of Doha via Stencil.business attire for women in qatar

Do you have advice on what businesswomen should wear in the Middle East? An old friend of Kat's is presenting at a conference in #Qatar in just a few weeks, and wondering how to strike the right balance between "conservative attire" and "modern business attire."

Comments

  1. Having spent some significant time in Dubai, I pantsuit with a high-necked shell in a dark sober color would be a good bet!

  2. Anonymous :

    Random thoughts:

    1) This Q automatically sprang to mind a book on my reading list called “Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar” by Lisa L. Kirchner

    2) While First Lady fashion choices always seems controversial for some reason, I really loved Melania Trump’s outfits during the President’s Middle East trip!

    3) I would be careful about extending UAE vs. Saudi vs. Qatar vs. Oman etc. They have distince cultures, even in commercial hubs within each.

    4) As much as research on attire, I’d do even more research on business customs, manners and practices.

  3. Anonymous :

    My dad spent significant time in Qatar for business and heard from one of his female colleagues who got to know some of the women (secretaries) over there that ladies wear really pretty lingerie under their burqas. That’s all I have to contribute!

    • And just like what we’d consider “normal” street clothes. If I remember correctly, 70% of Qatar’s residents are non-citizens, and Qatari women are more likely to wear abayas (thin black robes) and headscarves than burqas. Underneath, they’re probably wearing t-shirts and jeans (and cute shoes) just like anything you’d see on American streets.

      I find it hilarious that Kat says not to wear peep-toed shoes. I mean, yes, probably don’t wear peep toes, because for you peep toed shoes are less formal and would probably read as such. But fancy nails and shoes, as well as expensive sunglasses and hair pads to change the shape of your hair under your scarf, are common expressions of fashion in Gulf (Oman/ Bahrain/ Qatar/ Saudi) countries.

  4. Since Boden is available in the US and Europe (British store), they might have just the right thing for an international shopper. Their workwear collection (e.g Marise Ottoman Dress, with black tights and blazer) could have some good pieces!

  5. Anonymous :

    In my experience in the UAE, the safe choice is something in a sedate color, not too tight, higher neck. Maybe a dark suit that is a little loose with a higher necked shell. Many locals wear sandals and open toed shoes are acceptable in offices.

  6. Ex ME resident :

    Something that covers knees and arms, not too tight. Pantsuit is probably a better option for a conservative audience than a knee length skirt but maybe ask the conference audience or another speak to be sure? Assume the VIP is local? If so, considering taking a scarf just in case. There may be situations where you will feel you fit in more with one, and can cover hair then if needed. Think about the fact you will be hot outside but artic air con in most places!! Definitely no chest, and preferably sleeves on the top under the jacket so you can take your jacket off if you need to either indoors or wandering around. Thick jacket and black tights are out – you will melt. Try for a thin jacket and a silky top if possible. Be prepared for the women to be ridiculously glamorous – seriously, the tax is in beauty treatments required out there (I lived in the UAE for four years and travelled to Qatar for work). Wear heels (sorry but true), and have a fabulous time. The place is a bubble but it’s an experience and well worth a visit.

    • Mineallmine :

      Wear heels? Is this part of the beauty or status expectation rather than the modesty requirement? I’ve been there, but only as a tourist when I wore a lot of maxi dresses with a scarf or breezy shirt draped around my shoulders and sandals. To be honest, I don’t think I saw many locals there. It’s mostly foreign guest workers out in public.

  7. Anonymous :

    A few other threadjacks, mostly for Dubai:
    http://corporette.com/rockport-edessa-welded-pump/#comment-2082181
    http://corporette.com/tucker-oversize-bow-blouse/#comment-2101755
    http://corporette.com/leo-neckline-trim-t-shirt/#comment-3644545
    http://corporette.com/bell-sleeve-dress/#comment-3665607

  8. Squiggles :

    I lived for years in Saudi Arabia and travelled extensively in the ME as a teenager. There is no need to wear any of the clothing (in fact, I suggest to stay far, far away from it).

    Stick to the conservative side of things: Knee-length skirts, t-shirt length sleeves, maybe skip the vnecks, etc. I wore long pants, long sleeved/high necked shirts when we went into town. But the men are pigs. Remember this is a culture where it is the woman’s fault that she is raped. There is more leeway in the more westernized countries/cities but there are stories of western women thrown into jail for such things.

    It could be fairly cold inside the buildings (like AC overload, we would have condensation on the OUTSIDE of windows) so pack a wrap or cardigan.

    • Agree with all of this, especially about the AC!!!

      I wouldn’t change what I wear too much vs. normal. However, I would opt for the slightly more dressy items in my closet, especially my current wardrobe is veering towards edgy.

  9. As someone from a tropical nation, wearing a linen suit would just be kinda weird. You’re in a climate controlled office most of the time…

  10. Hi all, I am the person who wrote the original question to Kat. Thanks so much for all your great replies — they have been VERY helpful. A follow-up question: I assume that I am expected to wear stockings/pantyhose if I choose to wear a skirt, or would I be able to get away with bare legs? Oh, and back to the shoes, I am planning on buying a new pair of Ferragamos (I imagine they will go down well in that part of the world). It sounds like maybe I would not be totally out of line if I bought peep toes as opposed to the classic pumps I was planning on? And if so, would I be expected to wear stockings/hose even though my toes were showing? I’ll definitely be getting my nails done right before I go as well. If luxury accessories are expected in order to show status, that part is doable.

    Also, the VIP that I am meeting with is a senior government official who is also a member of the extended royal family. I have asked my hosts for advice re: protocol when meeting this VIP, but did not receive a response, and I do not feel comfortable pressing the matter. I am trying to research this matter on my own, and hopefully my hosts will fill me in once I am in Qatar, but any advice about protocol would be much appreciated!
    Thanks again!

    • I spent two years living in Oman and frequently worked in Qatar. I’d recommend a pantsuit rather than a skirt suit, but if you really want to wear a skirt it needs to be past your knees and not tight. Generally a pantsuit is less risky over there and there’s no concerns about it riding up or having some other sort of wardrobe malfunction. I never wore stockings/hose over there since it was so hot (and I also rarely wore skirts), although November/December in Qatar will be lovely.

      Peep toe shoes are fine – most locals wear fancy sandals (and the men almost exclusively wear sandals if they’re in their traditional clothing), so there is not the same scrutiny on visible toes over there as there is here.

      The best book I read before moving to the Middle East was “Don’t They Know It’s Friday” – it’s a quick read, but will give you some good tips on protocol and manners over there. The most important piece of advice I have for you is to not touch a man, even a handshake – if a Qatari man is Westernized (and I suspect a member of the Royal Family will be), he will reach out to shake your hand, but you should never initiate. Otherwise, nothing is more uncomfortable than sticking your hand out only to be refused.

      Have a great time! I love Qatar – it’s a bit more religious than some of the other countries in the region, but there are so few Qataris that there is a vibrant expat life and plenty of good restaurants and bars.

      • Great advice in this one! I was looking for someone to bring up the handshake issue. I’ve definitely been in a long line shaking hands around the room (everyone was shaking no big deal) and got in the habit of it and reached a conservative gentleman who didn’t shake hands. Instead he put his hand on his heart and sort of bowed. He and I ended up working very well together later so just know if you have an awkward issue it will likely be overlooked just as you might if the situation were reversed. I agree on pants. And Qataris love the AC almost as much as me so don’t be too worried about the heat issue if your meeting will be indoors.

  11. Subtlensublime :

    Hi , I would recommend pants and a silk tunic top with long sleeves. Or a pantsuit with a jacket, nothing too tight or well fitted. High heeled shoes and chic handbag, they wear the most expensive shoes and bags. Also keep a coordinated scarf if you feel the need to cover your head.

  12. So I have lived in the Middle East for years as a Western businesswoman.

    Some thoughts:

    -No abaya. Western business clothes are more than fine.
    -Aim away from v-necks. If you want to go v-neck because that’s what you have in your closet, then wear a light scarf with it.
    -COVER YOUR BUTT. That is probably the most common ‘mistake’ (you can call it that) that I see here (and that I made myself when I first arrived) most Western skirts and dress pants are too tight in the butt. Either wear tunic-length tops that cover your butt, or have a much looser pant. The former is easier than the latter.
    -Always bring a jacket. That’s not for modesty, that’s for the AC.

  13. I’ve traveled to UAE (Dubai) on business; I agree that a conservative, dark pants suit and jewel neck shell are the way to go. If you have a pants suit with a longer jacket, pick that one. Do not wear snug pants. The A/C will be cranking anywhere you go, so don’t worry about if a jacket will be too warm. I’d also advise a very conservative approach with makeup and hair.

  14. Former Doha resident :

    I used to live and work in Qatar. Generally, I wore short sleeved dresses with a very light material cardigan or light shrug type sweater or occasionally a blazer. Heeled sandals are fine but I would skip the peep toes. A pants suit is fine but as some one mentioned, skip snug attire. It will be hot but you will also have to dress for AC. If you are attending a meeting of predominately men, I do not think the chic of your handbag or shoes will matter much but they should be of good quality.

    Not quite sure what protocol tips you are seeking but generally, follow the lead from you hosts- and by that I mean “follow” . You will receive subtle signals. If you observe others behaving in a deferential manner to the royal, than you should do the same. The ruling family is huge so if you are in business circle , it is not difficult to encounter them. You’ll find it’s predominately normal business protocol, but again, observe those around you. Be polite and respectful, express appreciation at the honor you’ve been given to meet with him/her, express an appreciation of the culture/welcome you have been given , etc.

    Qatar is awesome and relatively progressive for the Gulf. You will be fine.

    Oh, and I NEVER wore hose in the hot months. That is madness in the heat.

  15. Former Doha resident :

    Adding: if you are looking for visual examples of attire, google image search Queen Raina of Jordan . She seems to speak often at conferences and makes other appearances. She nails it.

  16. While I haven’t worked in Qatar specifically, I’ve been to a lot of the Middle East and attended conferences, etc. If you are asking about cultural norms, I agree with most of what’s been posted here.

    The most important thing I’d remember is that I’ve found that generally, in the Middle East, Western women have a bad reputation – of being overly flirtatious and sexual. Keep in mind that smiling in many cultures is flirtatious. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t smile or laugh (although many Middle Eastern women cover their mouths when they smile) but to be aware of when it could be conveyed in a sexual way or not.

    Never touch men (including the handshake, as someone else mentioned) unless initiated. If you feel awkward, just lean in a little in place of handshake quickly and nod or say simply, “Nice to Meet You.”

    During one of the conferences I attended, there were several high-ranking members of the Qatari government. My biggest advice is to 1) make sure you are a little more formal than you might be with a colleague (as others have mentioned, follow others’ leads); 2) Consider having a few tactful, small gifts in case you are presented with one yourself (think nice business card holder, a folio, etc). Sometimes people give you expensive gifts (I got a Mont Blanc pen once) so while you don’t have to have something equally as expensive, it’s good to have something small.

  17. I just wanted to add a reminder to check the hem length or a dress or skirt when you sit down in a chair. If conference tables are glass, you might show more than you planned and you don’t want your Spanx showing.
    And should you have to be on stage, pants are a safer bet. I agree, closed toed shoes look more professional and V-Necks are too deep, don’t do it. Good luck!

  18. Dear all, thanks yet again on your comments. They have helped me immensely.

    So . . . sandals. I hate wearing shoes with any height unless they are a block heel due to bad knees/ankles. These sandals would fit the bill. It sounds like sandals are OK over there? Can somebody please reality check me on whether these would be OK? https://www.ferragamo.com/shop/us/en/women/shoes/-640348–1 I have to say that in my current country I live in the subtropics where standard business attire for women is fairly informal (think short-sleeved dresses with no jacket on top) so I’d probably get more use out of these than a standard pair of pumps. Thoughts? Thanks again!

  19. This is a interesting topic. Thanks for covering for us. We have to respect the culture of the country. And I think when we attending to a conference in Arabic countries something more covered will be a great choice for both men and women. Keep writing these kind of valuable topics. Cheers.

  20. Former Doha resident :

    Those Ferragamo sandals look fine. I would take a backup pair of close-toed shoes, just in case. Also, it sounds like what you wear to work normally is fine. Just swap out a long sleeved jacket.

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