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Cultural Considerations for Doing Business in the Middle East

Nasif Kayed

Founder and Chief Executive Officer The Arab Culturalist, UAE

Missing out on the cultural considerations necessary for business decision-making in an unfamiliar culture or work environment can be risky and can prompt financial loss and missed opportunities. This article highlights strategies for limiting your risk and taking advantage of opportunities outside of your cultural comfort zone, especially in the Middle East.

The first thing to do is to set aside any stereotypes and misconceptions and suspend judgment. The best way to do this is to pause, observe, ask questions, learn, and reflect. The next thing to do is to look into the cultural factors that affect day-to-day decision-making, negotiations, and corporate culture in the region. These factors can be categorized into four key groups: social, religious, legal, and business.

Social considerations are defined as our first impressions — they are how we establish respect through the learning of basic acceptable social norms within a cultural environment. Here are a few ways to improve social awareness when doing business in the Middle East:
Learn the language, or at least the simple greetings and protocols associated with Arab culture, such as Assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you), Marhaba (hello), and Ma̔al-salāmah (goodbye). This show of interest and effort to adapt will go a long way in your earning the respect of your potential business partner or customer.

  • Study the process of greetings. Do you bow, shake hands, or hug and kiss? Is it the same for men and women? Most Arabs have adopted shaking hands — that is, in a man-to-man interaction. Some women do shake hands, but if you are a man, wait for the woman to extend her hand first. Note that greetings between women can be a simple handshake or a touching of the cheeks. Getting this right might take some practice but let your counterpart lead
  • Be aware of your proximity to the opposite sex. It is best to keep a proper distance and avoid any physical gestures or touching, such as a pat on the back
  • Observe the tradition of allowing the right-most person to leave first when exiting a room. Similarly, when serving guests, start on the right
  • Avoid conversations about politics and religion initially. Listen deeply and disagree respectfully
  • Remember that while cultural norms may apply, not all individuals will fit within stereotypical social behaviors. Treat people and situations individually

In an Arab Muslim country, business planning should consider the following religious practices:

  • Friday is a holy day that is strictly for worship and family for the majority of Muslims. In addition, knowing the timings of the five daily prayers and planning work around these times shows respect. When in a Muslim country, extended meetings should have a provision for a prayer break as a courtesy. Having telephonic meetings or sending communications (such as e-mails and text messages) during prayer times is considered a display of poor cultural awareness
  • Thursday evening after sunset is technically the start of the Friday holy day, so be aware of this if planning events and functions at this time. When hosting, prohibitions on alcohol and pork inside or outside the region should be discussed with guests. The majority of Arab Muslim guests prefer a business function or a gathering at which neither of these is offered
  • The Islamic calendar includes annual holy periods, such as Ramadan. Keep these in mind and learn the dos and don’ts. Find out about the Eid (festival) celebration, which marks the end of Ramadan. What does it mean and how can you can be part of it? Make sure you are well informed on all such special occasions, as there is much to be considered. Again, your awareness and consideration will indicate a great deal of respect

The intrinsic values of Arabs, such as hospitality, honesty, and honor, are embedded in the legal structures of the region, reflecting attitudes towards legislation that promote equality and fairness. Some cornerstone values include:

  • Welcoming guests with great hospitality
  • Honoring deals and always engaging in an honest manner
  • Ensuring deals are fair for all parties involved
  • Aiming for peaceful, courteous, and just resolutions to conflict
  • When there is conflict, lawyers and court systems are considered a last resort. While some countries have adopted parts of Sharia law and jurisprudence, no country in the Middle East has implemented it in its entirety. It is important to be aware of what this is and how it can affect business contracts in particular.

From a business perspective, to improve your chances of success, practice the following:

  • Know the name of the person you are dealing with and its proper pronunciation. In the Middle East, we typically use the first name rather than call someone by their last name, and meetings and first encounters are usually peer-to-peer
  • Know the position or status of your contact. Middle Eastern countries are generally high-power distance societies, so decisions are usually made by seniority. If a matter requires quick attention and is of great importance, it should be handled by senior executives on both sides
  • Observe time and be punctual
  • Engage in a bit of small talk before business but avoid subjects such as politics, religion, personal questions, or even questions based on generalizations, such as “Do all Muslims pray five times a day?” A more appropriate question would be along the lines of “What does a day in your life look like?”
  • Listen carefully. Arabs tend to be indirect in describing their needs and wants during negotiations, so pay attention to comments on what you are presenting. Reflect meaningfully on the responses you receive and learn to pick up on the subliminal messages in conversations
  • Ensure that contracts or agreements are fair, clear, and without any ambiguity. Establishing a relationship with your business associate is what matters most
  • Take time before you enter a new venture. Be patient: business people in the Middle East generally prefer not to rush and appreciate some time and space to seek the advice of trusted family members and advisors. Once you have established a good, mutually beneficial relationship, you will probably be able to do more business, and dealings will move much faster. What matters most is one’s earned reputation

Investing in learning about the values and protocols of the local culture provides the foundation for making a deal and doing business successfully in the Middle East. While being mindful of cultural considerations is a valuable exercise, the most impactful approach is to treat the individual with respect and to frame your interactions with integrity.


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