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Tip to Arabs abroad: Don’t ditch the dishdash

They have impact – to westerners they are the very essence of Arab-ness

dishdash business Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud Reuters/Leonhard Foeger
Saudi Arabia's energy minister Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman was one of the only Middle East representatives at the recent Opec meeting to be wearing traditional Arab dress

Take a look at some of the “family photo” pictures from the Opec International Seminar in Vienna earlier this week.

Out of 20 plus official Opec representatives to the event in one picture, I’d guess around half must be Middle Easterners of some description – Peninsular, Levantine or Maghrebi.

But only one, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman, the energy minister of Saudi Arabia, is wearing traditional Arab dress.

He stands out among the group of suits, who could be at any business meeting in Europe or North America – dark jacket and trousers, white shirt and loud tie. (There were only a few women in most of the shots.)

Opec in Vienna is often regarded as an outpost of the Arab world in Mitteleuropa, so it is surprising that the gathering didn’t put on more of a sartorial show of its ethnic origins.

But when Arabs travel to the west on business, they generally tend to eschew Arab clothing. It has ever been thus, in my experience.

Soon after I came to the UAE in 2006, I joined some Emirati media colleagues on a business trip to London. These were people I met and interacted with every day of the week, and as a man and a woman they wore white dishdashas and black abayas, respectively, in their daily working environment.

We had arranged to meet at the departure gates at DXB, but when I got there I didn’t see any of them – until a beautiful woman wearing Levi’s jeans and a designer T-shirt tapped me on the shoulder and said “Hi Frank”.

It was Huda (not her real name), a very senior star in the Dubai media executive firmament, but briefly unrecognisable to me in her western gear. 

All the rest of the team were there too, looking like a rock band about to go on tour – brand jeans, black shirts, leather jackets and expensive trainers. I felt very overdressed in my beige chinos and navy jacket.

When we went about our various meetings in London, the men all wore tailored business suits à la Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street.

It was December, and over shivering cigarettes outside our no-smoking hotel one night, one of the group – a senior marketing executive at a big Dubai media conglomerate called Ahmed – confided in me: “I miss my dishdash! This” – he pointed at the Savile Row waistcoat he was wearing – “is just too cold.”

That might seem contrary, given that the dishdash is designed to keep the wearer cool in sizzling Gulf temperatures, but it actually made sense.

His point was that, under a dishdash, you can wear anything you like to ward off the northern winter. Not many western executives would wear long johns under their Brioni three-piece, even in frigid January Manhattan.

I think Arabs abroad are missing a trick. For many in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the dishdash or the abaya are work gear, the clothes they wear to the office every day. But to westerners they are the very essence of exotic Arab-ness. They have impact.

One Emirati lawyer friend told me that he often chooses to arrive at meetings with westerners in full Arab dress, including guthra and agal headwear, even when he knew the rest of the attendees would be in business suits. “It helps you differentiate. You demand to be heard,” he said.

A western businessman with long experience in the Middle East agreed with that. “I find it a bit intimidating, to be honest. In meetings in Dubai, which is a very westernised city, to see a man in full Arab regalia in a bank meeting room reminds you who is boss.

“The dishdash says that no matter how much he respects you and your skills, or likes the proposition on the table, at the end of the day it is his decision whether the deal is done, or not.”

It is a lesson that could be learned by the big Arab contingent at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

There, they dress in western attire, no doubt out of commendable respect for the cultural environment around them. But they end up like virtually all the others there – either western bank managers, or Alpine skiers.

It would be a stunning Davos entrance if they all decided to show up en masse in flowing robes and golden bishts (the traditional Arab outer cloak that signifies seniority or royalty) – the ultimate in Arab power dressing.

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