Doing Business in the Middle East

 

doing business in the middle east

If you want to get ahead in an up-and-coming region, then you need to understand how business is done in the Middle East. In this article you will find a guide to conducting business in the Middle East, as norms and practices vary greatly from, say, a European or US perspective. A region diverse in geography, ethnicity, religion, and cultural practice, the heterogeneity of the Arab world means it is necessary to delve into the details of the economy and culture of each individual country in order to discover the opportunities available to the savvy businessman.

The different sections below each focus on a particular aspect of business culture or etiquette in the region, including details on the Middle Eastern calendar, negotiations with Arab business partners, and even how to navigate hospitality and invitations in the region. There are many helpful pointers here so that you avoid the faux-pas that an under-prepared businessman/woman arriving in the Middle East might otherwise make. The final sections of the article will point out some country-specific tips, highlighting the differences in practice between the various countries which make up the Middle East.

This guide provides you with a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the region’s etiquette, allowing you to make a success of the opportunities in the exciting and diverse region that is the Middle East.

 

 

 

Timing is Key: A guide to the calendar in the Middle East

 

One of the most basic but most easily overlooked details about business in the Middle East is the different working week. Friday is the holy day in Islam, and congregational prayers are held at noon. Therefore, the weekend in most Middle Eastern countries falls on Friday and Saturday, although there are some exceptions. This chart below details the different weekends across the region:

 

Name of Country

Friday/Saturday

Saturday/Sunday

Algeria

Bahrain

Egypt

Iraq

Jordan

Kuwait

Lebanon

Libya

Morocco

Oman

Palestine

Qatar

Saudi Arabia

Sudan

Syria

Tunisia

United Arab Emirates

Yemen

 

It is useful to note that while the Gregorian calendar is the official norm in most of the Middle East (with Saudi Arabia as the exception), the Islamic lunar calendar does also influence life in terms of religious festivals and events. There are two major Muslim festivals to note: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The first follows the end of the fast during the month of Ramadan and the second the end of the annual pilgrimage (also known as Hajj). These festivals typically last three days but it is common for governments to extend them as they wish. Since the Islamic calendar follows lunar rather than solar movements it is difficult to predict exactly when the holidays will fall, and the dates will vary from country to country and year to year. It is therefore a good idea to avoid planning business around the times of these two festivals.

One time of the year when professional and personal lives are turned upside down in the Middle East is during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is considered the holy month by Muslims and sees them fasting from dawn to dusk, forbidding them from eating, drinking, and smoking. Business hours are often significantly reduced and it is wise to avoid doing business or organising meetings during this month. Again owing to the lunar calendar, the exact dates of Ramadan vary both year on year and from country to country, and in fact the fasting will only start once the correct moon has been sighted in each country, rather than there being an official starting date. Also note that if you do happen to be in an Arab country during Ramadan, it is polite to eat, drink, and smoke inside and away from the public eye only.

While Arab countries are predominantly Muslim, there are also large Christian minorities, particularly in Jordan and Egypt. You should therefore also expect Christian festivals such as Christmas to disrupt working schedules.

 

Planning your visit to the Middle East

 

There is much less of a divide between personal and professional life in the Arab world, and therefore personal contact and face to face communication is key. Avoid trying to do business over email or telephone and instead make the effort to organise a physical meeting.

Having a senior contact in a company or organisation is imperative to actually penetrating the industry, so if you lack one of these, consider employing an intermediary, or someone commonly known as a “contact-sponsor” to guide you to the right person.

Although this will vary from country to country and indeed business to business, organisation in the Middle East can tend to be more last-minute than in other parts of the world where at least initial meetings must be booked weeks if not a month in advance. Try not to organise a meeting too far in advance, and be sure to confirm the meeting by telephone a few days beforehand.

 

Greetings in the Middle East

 

Middle east greetings

 

Arabs are extremely proud of their language, not least since it is derived from the Classical Arabic used in the Holy Qur’an to record the revelations sent down to the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) by Allah.

It is therefore recommended that you learn some simple Arabic greetings to establish a friendly connection with whomever you might be meeting. The assumption is that foreigners would not have bothered to learn any Arabic before arriving, so a little knowledge goes a long way. Below is a short list of useful phrases:

 

When/where to use

Transliteration

Arabic

Literal English Meaning (where applicable)

Initial greeting (religious in connotation, particularly prevalent in the Gulf states).

As-salaam alaykum

السلام عليكم

Peace be upon you.

Response to above.

Wa alaykum as-salaam

وعليكم السلام

And peace be upon you too.

Hello

Marhaba

مرحبا

How are you?

Keif al-haal?

كيف الحال؟

Response to above.

Al-hamdulillah

الحمد لله

Thanks be to God.

Please

Min fadlak (to a male)

Min fadlik (to a female)

من فضلك

Thank you

Shukran

شكرا

Expression common when discussing future plans or action.

Inshallah

إن شاء الله

God willing.

Goodbye

Ma As-salama

مع السلامة

Go in peace.

 

Handshakes are the typical form of physical greeting in the Middle East, but are likely to last longer than Westerners are used to. It is recommended that you wait for the other person to withdraw his/her hand before you do. If you are a man greeting an Arab businesswoman, wait for her to extend her hand as particularly conservative women may choose to not shake hands with men. In a similar vein, if you are a businesswoman meeting Arab businessmen, wait for them to initiate the handshake.

How to address the person you are meeting properly will vary from country to country and business to business, but it is best to remain formal if unsure. You yourself are likely to be addressed by Mr/Ms followed by your first name. See the final sections below for country specific tips on addressing your potential business partners.

Business cards are part of the course in the Arab world, so make sure to get yours printed in both Arabic and English. It is important to remember that Arabic is read from right to left meaning an Arab’s eyes are automatically drawn to the right side of a piece of writing, so place your company logo accordingly on the card.

 

How to gain trust in the Arab business world

 

Although this is changing as Arab countries gain more exposure to Western business practices, for many Arabs there is no separation between personal and professional lives, and as such, a potential business partner must also be considered a potential friend.

It is imperative to organise a face to face meeting as the ability to build trust is greatly increased in this environment. An Arab businessman/woman will want to engage in small talk on a personal level before the purpose of the visit or meeting is even brought up. This is all part of a desire to understand you on a personal, friendly level, before discussing business.

Small talk is incredibly important in establishing friendly business relations. You must be ready to answer questions about your travel, your home, your experience of the country you have traveled to, your health, and the health of your family. It is a good idea to have a few anecdotes or stories ready to entertain with, and to ask all the questions back to your acquaintance. Be aware that it is usual and expected to ask after the health of an Arab’s family, and perhaps some general questions about his/her children, but avoid asking specifically after female members of the family, as this can cause offence in more conservative societies.

You may also encounter the system commonly known as wasta during your time in the Middle East. Wasta follows that well-known Western maxim of, “It’s not what you know but who you know”. In the Middle East this is a widely exploited system and it is viewed as neither shameful nor underhand, but simply as part of the normal course of business and daily life. If you have high-powered contacts or friends in the right places you are likely to find that bureaucracy and business run in a much smoother fashion. A system of borrowed and returned favours is also prevalent. If you are asked a favour by a business partner, endeavour to fulfil it or at least give the semblance that you have tried your best. Never refuse outright to do something when it is clearly a case of wasta. Even if you are not able to get your contact what he/she needs or wants, your effort and enthusiasm will be remembered, appreciated, and surely repaid in time.

 

Meetings in the Middle East

 

The first thing to note when getting into the nitty-gritty of meetings in the Arab world is that the concept of punctuality can be very different. Do not be surprised if your counterpart is up to half an hour late, sometimes longer. Time moves in a different, more relaxed fashion in the Middle East and it is easier to go with the flow than to get frustrated. Having said that, it is advisable that you as the visitor show up on time as a sign of respect to your host.

Meetings tend to be structured very differently in the Arab world. You may expect a much more circular structure as opposed to the rigidly linear tendencies of most Western business practices. Agendas are likely to be lacking. After the customary five minutes of small talk, the point of business will be brought up and discussed, most likely with the most senior businessman in the room leading and directing the discussion.

Interruptions are common, even during what may feel like it should be a private meeting. Other employees or visitors entering the office or room in order to obtain signatures or advice, phone calls to be taken, or emails to be checked should all be expected as part of the lengthy process of a business meeting in the Arab world. This aspect of a meeting in the Middle East has been compounded by the rapid spread of smartphones across the region. Arabs are very open to checking their smartphones and communicating with them, even when they are sitting and talking with you face to face. Be prepared for this and try not to get frustrated or to take offence. In the Middle East this is not a sign of disrespect, it is simply part of today’s technology-fueled culture.

Remember to take multiple copies of any printed information, business plans, or brochures which you might be using or introducing in the meeting. It is quite possible that the person with whom you are talking is not the real decision-maker in the company and that your meeting and materials will need to be relayed to others later on.

 

Negotiations with your Arab business partners

 

It is crucial to remember that the Arab societies were and in many ways still are traditional trading societies, and that it is therefore normal to expect a Middle Eastern businessman to drive a hard bargain. You have been warned.

The pace of negotiation is often much slower in the Arab world, so stay patient and do not try and rush your counterparts into a deal. The same patience is crucial when dealing with the bureaucracy and paperwork prevalent in every Middle Eastern country. The time and effort it takes to get visas, permits, and other necessary paperwork can be demoralising, but if you are prepared to sit out the wait, it will be all the more rewarding.

Another difference in the way in which Arabs negotiate is the tribal or associative mentality. Most Middle Eastern societies still hark back to their tribal origins even if society has progressed away from this structure politically. This can influence negotiations since the lead negotiator is likely to want to discuss the decision with the whole team before confirming an agreement, so again, allow more time for this stage of negotiations.

One of the most important things to remember when doing business in the Middle East is that many Arabs find it extremely shameful to be seen to lose face in public at any point. They will therefore go out of their way to save face, be it their own or that of those around them. Try not to directly disagree with or contradict anyone during the meeting. Telling someone you think he/she is wrong is a sure way of causing them to lose face, meaning no business deal for you. Instead, try subtle indicators of disagreement, using phrases such as, “In order to move forward I think it may be better to…”, or, “In my experience such and such has been more effective, so perhaps that would be worth considering.” Bear in mind also that an Arab is unlikely to disagree with you outright since that would cause you to lose face, and it therefore becomes difficult to ascertain whether you are in fact on the same page, have an agreement, or are ready to proceed to the next stage of negotiations. It is always advisable to follow up a meeting with an email exchange or phone conversation in which it is perhaps easier for Arabs to express their opinions and wishes candidly.

Body language takes on even more importance in the Arab context, then, since public disagreement is so risky. Be on the lookout for all the usual signs of positive and negative reactions through body language, and know that this may well be a better indicator of a person’s opinion than what his speech suggests.

Also remember in the realm of body language that pointing and the thumbs up sign are considered rude in many Arab cultures, as is crossing your legs when sitting and displaying the sole of your shoe to someone.

A note here on personal space in the Arab world is necessary. Arabs often give you much less personal space than is usual in the West, and as such will stand or sit much closer to you, touch you more, and perhaps even take your hand when leading you somewhere. This, although very unusual from a Western viewpoint, is simply a cultural difference.

 

Dress Code for business in the Middle East

 

middle east dress code

Businessmen visiting the Middle East can expect to dress very similarly to usual. A smart business suit will suffice (although dark colours are recommended), and in some areas much more casual attire is suitable, depending on the country, region, and business sector, much like anywhere else in the world. In general when travelling in the Middle East, however, avoid wearing shorts and short sleeved shirts or t-shirts as the idea of modesty in dress applies to men as well as women in many societies.

Businesswomen visiting the Middle East should always make sure to dress conservatively, covering arms at least to the elbow, legs to the ankles, and avoiding displaying any cleavage. The exact dress code for women depends greatly on the country. See the country specific tips below to check if conservative business dress is sufficient, or if there is a particular dress code which must be adhered to (very occasionally by law).

Many Arab societies are very concerned with outward appearances as evidence of social status, and good quality clothes reflect a comfortable or powerful position in society. It is therefore recommended that you pay attention to the quality and appearance of the clothes you are wearing in order to make a good impression.

Be aware that your Arab counterparts, especially in the Gulf countries, may wear traditional dress. This usually consists of a long white robe known as a thobe and often also a red and white checked headdress called a keffiyeh. The exact style and colour of this dress will vary from country to country, region to region, and even tribe to tribe. Most women in the Gulf dress in the traditional black robe called an abaya and will wear a headscarf. Do not be tempted to don the traditional dress yourself as this could well cause offence to those who wear it as a symbol of a continuing heritage and tradition.

Elsewhere, across the Levant and North Africa, the way businessmen and women dress varies greatly. Some will dress traditionally, and others will dress in the suits or general attire that you would expect to come across anywhere else in the world.

 

Hospitality in Middle Eastern societies

 

middle east hospitality

Hospitality is a key aspect of Arab culture, bound up with the honour and respect of your family. Be ready, therefore, to have refreshments, gifts, and invitations loaded upon you, and know that it is part of the culture and completely normal.

You will likely be offered some sort of refreshment during a meeting, be it tea, coffee, juice, biscuits, or dates, to name a few common examples. Be sure to accept this hospitality. Whether to accept as soon as this is offered or after a repeated offer depends on the country, so see below for tips.

Your host may invite you to a restaurant meal. It is good practice to return the invitation. It is usual for the person who does the inviting to pay the bill. If for any reason the group is going to split the bill, it is better that one person pays and is reimbursed by the others in private, rather than the accounting being done in public at the table.

An invitation to dinner at your host’s home is a great opportunity to consolidate the necessary friendship for a strong business partnership with an Arab, and also an interesting cultural experience. The following tips, however, are crucial for a successful social occasion:

  • It is usual, especially in the Gulf, for men and women to dine separately. An invitation to dinner does not necessarily include an extension of that invitation to a spouse or significant other.
  • Punctuality is a sign of respect to your host. Do not, however, expect to eat straightaway. It is normal for there to be a lot of talking and socialising before food is actually served.
  • Take a small gift or token of appreciation for your host but do not take alcohol as taking alcohol into an Islamic home can cause great offence.
  • Follow the instructions of your host, entering a room when he indicates that you do so, and only sitting when requested. Be aware that it may be customary for the oldest person in the room to enter or sit first, so wait to be told what to do.
  • Be ready to sit on the floor when dining in many Middle Eastern settings, but feel free to shift position from time to time. In general, follow those around you in terms of how you sit and position yourself.
  • In terms of acceptable conversation topics, do not bring up business unless your host does, and try to stay away from religion and politics (especially Israel) as topics such as these can easily cause offence.
  • It is usual for food to be served in the middle of the floor or table, and for everyone to help themselves from the common dish or dishes. As the guest, you may well be offered the tastiest morsels and it is polite to accept them. Do not, however, start to take food until you have been told to, as in some countries the oldest person in the room will eat first and everyone else will follow.
  • Depending on the house and your host you may or may not be presented with cutlery. If not, it is customary to use a piece of bread to retrieve food from the central dish and to eat the food and bread together in one.
  • Avoid using your left hand to retrieve food from the central dish as the left hand is considered unclean in Muslim societies. Many Arabs will not allow their left hands to touch any food, but if, as a foreigner, you find it difficult to tear your bread with one hand, you can use both hands and your incompetence should be overlooked. On this note, also avoid handing objects or business cards to Arabs using your left hand for the same reason cited above.
  • Compliment the food and the house in general freely, but avoid complimenting individual objects with too much zeal as custom would have it that these are then presented to you as gifts.

It is worth noting that work culture in the Middle East would not usually involve going out for drinks like in Europe or the US, but there are exceptions to this rule. In particular, high-powered businessmen and women from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who are accustomed to international travel may well take advantage of working with a foreigner to indulge in this type of activity. Although non-traditional Arabs such as this would probably go for drinks anyway with like-minded Arabs, they may well feel more comfortable being their liberal selves in the presence of foreigners.

In the same way that you will find hospitality bestowed upon you when in the Arab world, if you extend an invitation to an Arab, whether in the Middle East or in your home country, he/she will expect similar hospitality and generosity from you. Properly hosting and welcoming Arabs is a case of giving the utmost that you have to offer, regardless of means. Examples include providing and paying for all food, drink, and transportation or acting as a tour guide of the city’s main landmarks. Make sure to accommodate their wishes, and really treat them to the experience of your generosity. This is the best way to impress Arabs in the realm of hospitality.

 

Other religious considerations when working in the Middle East

 

Muslims are obliged to pray 5 times a day, and prayer times are announced by the call to prayer which sounds from local mosques as well as being printed in daily newspapers. The rough timings of the 5 prayers are as follows:

  1. Al-Fajr – Dawn, before sunrise
  2. Al-Zuhr – Midday, after the sun has reached its highest point in the sky
  3. Al-‘Asr – Late afternoon
  4. Al-Maghrib – Just after sunset
  5. Al-‘Isha – Between sunset and midnight

Not all Muslims will go to the mosque to pray, many preferring to pray at home or in the office. Be aware that there will be separate prayer rooms for men and women in offices. It is a good idea to take prayer times into consideration when scheduling meetings.

Muslims are forbidden from consuming both pork and alcohol, and as such these products are difficult to find in many Middle Eastern countries, and illegal in others.

 

Country Specific Tips

  1. Saudi Arabia
  • It is crucial when working in Saudi Arabia to employ a contact-sponsor with high-powered friends or relatives who can lead you to the correct partnerships for your business plan. Note that once you have employed this contact, it is extremely difficult to switch to another.
  • Coffee is often served towards the end of a meeting to signify that proceedings are drawing to a close, and sometimes incense will be lit at this point also.
  • Loyalty to family, the House of Saud, and the divine Islamic law is key to understanding a Saudi’s mentality. Thinking is collective, orientated around the family and tribe, and a strong sense of fatalism owing to divine will is prevalent, meaning that most are happy to accept the status quo in society.
  • Do not expect to see many women when conducting business in Saudi, although professional Saudi women are becoming more common. The public domain is seen as a male enclave, and women are subject to many restrictions by law, such as the ban on driving.
  • For businesswomen travelling to Saudi Arabia the long black robe known as an abaya which covers from the neck to the ankles and all the way to the wrists is mandatory. It is also advisable to wear a headscarf, in case of an encounter with the religious police in the country.
  1. The United Arab Emirates
  • Status is very important in the UAE, and so the correct titles of either “Sheikh” or “Sayed” (“Sheikha” or “Sayeda” for a woman) should be used.
  • Age is directly linked to seniority and it is common to stand when someone older than you enters the room, to greet the oldest person in the room first, and to wait for the oldest person in the room to start eating before starting yourself.
  • Be aware that owing to the large expat population in the UAE, many companies conduct business here almost entirely on Western terms, so it is important to have no preconceptions as each business will be merging local and international values in its practices.
  • The UAE, and in particular the emirate Dubai, are famous for its international business opportunities, and all aspects of business etiquette, including the dress code, reflect this. As a businessman or woman in the Emirates, you can largely expect to dress as you would anywhere else in the world.
  1. Jordan
  • When faced with a group of people, start by greeting the first person on your right and work your way around to the last person on your left.
  • As in many Arab countries, age is linked to seniority. In general the wishes and opinions of someone older than you are adhered to. The oldest person in the room is likely to be leading the discussion, and direct eye contact with this person is recommended.
  • It is unusual for gifts to be exchanged at initial business meetings.
  • If you are offered refreshments during or after the meeting, it is polite to decline at first, and to accept after the offer has been made 3 times.
  • If invited to a Jordanian home, it would be polite to take a small gift such as sweets or flowers. No gift should be too ostentatious or expensive as it could be considered a bribe.
  1. Egypt
  • Consider employing a local agent to get you the right contacts and speed everything up. This person can also introduce the main points of your business in Arabic, a time-saving mechanism that Egyptians will appreciate.
  • When thinking of suitable topics for small talk, always bring up Egyptian achievements, both ancient and modern, and consider talking about the cotton industry which is extremely important.
  • The business hours of each day vary between summer and winter. In summer they are usually 8am until 2pm, and in winter 9am until 1pm and then 5pm until 7pm.
  • There is a tendency for people to also not work on Thursday, even though the weekend officially starts on Friday.
  • If you are eating with an Egyptian, do not eat all the food on your plate. Leaving a small amount indicates that you have eaten sufficiently, whereas a clean plate indicates you would like more food. Furthermore, do not add salt to your food in front of an Egyptian as it is considered an insult to the food.
  1. Morocco
  • The French influence in Morocco remains strong, and you may find French business practices abound, and that the primary language of business is French rather than Arabic.
  • When organising a meeting in Morocco, unlike in other Arab countries, you should try to organise it as far in advance as possible, and then confirm it a few days beforehand.
  • Avoid bringing up the royal family, politics in the Western Sahara and Algeria, and drugs in conversation as these are all taboo topics.
  • The serving of mint tea is a symbol of hospitality, so be prepared to accept this whenever meeting somebody new.
  • The family unit is the most important structure in Moroccan society and as such it is considered positive to engage in nepotism as it is a sign of supporting the family structure.

Conclusion

The Middle East offers a myriad of opportunities for savvy businessmen and women willing to reach out of their comfort zone in order to reap rewards. This guide has offered advice on all aspects of Middle Eastern business culture and etiquette and should act as a beneficial starting point for those wishing to know what to expect when launching into the region.

If you need a handy reminder of the key points and tips in this article, print off this fact sheet to help you on your way.

References

The Global Etiquette Guide to Africa and the Middle East by Dean Foster (Wiley, 2002)

Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society by Margaret K. Nydell (Intercultural Press, 2012)

Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World by Thomas W. Lippman (A Meridian Book, 1995)

Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries, by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway (Adams Media, 2006)