7 Top Tips Of Doing Business In The Middle East

By Antonia Čirjak on February 15 2020 in Society

Every country, tribe, religion may have its own way of doing things.
Every country, tribe, religion may have its own way of doing things.
  • When visiting the United Arab Emirates remember to not use your left hand to greet people as it is considered ''unclean.''
  • For a successful business interaction, it is important to first establish trust and an honest personal relationship.
  • In a lot of Islamic countries, the weekend falls on Friday (a holy day) and Saturday, instead of the usual Saturday - Sunday.

Some customs of the Middle Eastern countries are so elaborate and ritualized that you will need to make a small checklist and maybe even practice the traditional greetings or gestures a few times. Here are 7 top tips on doing business in the Middle East that will get you started on the right track.

The Middle East Is Not A Single Culture

Middle East is not a homogenous culture.
Middle East is not a homogenous culture.

Of course, the Middle East is not a homogenous culture. Every country, tribe, religion may have its own way of doing things. You need to check every time, and your contact sponsor is an invaluable source of the specific information. For example, left-handed people may have a harder time in the United Arab Emirates because the left hand is perceived as unclean and is reserved strictly for “toilet matters.” So it is essential to eat, shake hands and pass documents and gifts strictly with your right hand, or you would seriously insult your partner.

Age is highly respected here; you have to allow an older person to enter the room, sit down, and start eating before doing any of those yourself. 

Generosity And Honor

Be ready to receive refreshments, gifts, invitations, and more gifts.
Be ready to receive refreshments, gifts, invitations, and more gifts.

Hospitality and generosity are the critical aspects of Arab culture, tightly bound with family honor and dignity. Be ready to receive refreshments, gifts, invitations, and more gifts - it is a part of the culture and is completely normal.

They would not refuse a request of a guest, so be careful; avoid overly admiring some objects in the office or the home of the host as the custom requires it to be presented to you as a gift. If you say something like “I would love to have it,” you will be given the object, no matter what it is, or the host would lose their face. 

The Importance Of Body Language

Personal space among Arab men is much smaller than in the West.
Personal space among Arab men is much smaller than in the West.

Because public disagreements are so risky for both the relationship and the business, body language and gestures are important. Often enough, the host will express the way they feel about some argument or a deal through their body language even if they do not give any sign in their speech. Look out for signs of positive or conflicting reactions. Small things matter when it comes to your body language here: crossing legs and exposing soles is very rude, as is giving thumbs up.  

Personal space among Arab men is much smaller than in the West. They would stand closer when talking, would touch you a lot, and even take your hand when leading you somewhere. It might feel very unusual to a Westerner, but this is not special treatment; it is just as natural for them as keeping your distance for you. And it also shows friendliness, so it is a good thing. Of course, no one would touch a woman, and you should avoid doing it unless she stretches a hand towards you first. 

Never Cause Your Host To Lose Their Face

Avoid directly pointing out even obvious mistakes or wrongdoings.
Avoid directly pointing out even obvious mistakes or wrongdoings.

Do not expect there to be a strict agenda. The meeting may be interrupted many times, and the host might change the subject to personal matters or offer you refreshments. You can also expect that the host will try to drive a hard bargain, but would not give his own decision right away; do not make any hasty decisions either or react negatively. You need to embrace the Arab way of doing things if you want to succeed.  

One of the most important things to keep in mind when conducting business in the Middle East is that Arab people can not stand losing face. They would go out of their way to save their face and would do the same for their colleagues. So you have to avoid directly pointing out even obvious mistakes or wrongdoings: just ignore it and approach it as if offering an alternative solution.  

Meetings And Greetings

Greet everyone in the room separately and exchange handshakes.
Greet everyone in the room separately and exchange handshakes.

To show your respect to your potential partners, you must arrive for your meetings on time. Do not be offended or shocked if your hosts are running late as this is not rude, and possibly not deliberate. In most Arab nations, time is perceived differently and flows in a more relaxed manner. They pay more attention to the events than to the count of minutes. When you arrive for a meeting, greet everyone in the room separately and exchange handshakes. You might notice that the handshakes are gentle, but they last longer than in the West.

Arabs are incredibly proud of their language, so learn a local way of greeting (double-check with your contact sponsor). Introduce yourself, and do not rush this part as it might seem disrespectful. As the divide between business and personal life here is different from the West, you can expect a lot of questions about your health, wellbeing, travel, family, and their wellbeing. Do not hesitate to ask the same questions yourself and show a genuine interest. This is the traditional ice-breaking and trust-building part, and it is common for every meeting.   

Friday Is The Sunday Here

In many Islamic countries, Friday is a holy day.
In many Islamic countries, Friday is a holy day.

In many Islamic countries, Friday is a holy day, so the weekend is set for Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday. It is imperative to pay attention and not set a meeting on Friday, especially around noon.

The list of countries which have Friday-Saturday weekend is impressive: Algeria, Sudan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. 

Business Here Is Personal

Face-to-face meetings are generally preferable over the email or phone call negotiations.
Face-to-face meetings are generally preferable over the email or phone call negotiations.

People in the Middle East prefer to conduct business in person, so face-to-face meetings are generally preferable over the email or phone call negotiations. Personal relationships and mutual trust are essential for successful business interaction. This can create specific barriers: it is necessary to have a well-connected contact in the Middle East who can introduce you, otherwise you will find it quite hard to create a network.

To solve this, Western businessmen often hire a “contact sponsor” to handle the introductions or to be your intermediary and arrange the initial meeting. 

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