Executive Secretary asked two experts on the region to give their personal guides to doing business in the Middle East.
The Consultant’s View…
The founder of Kwintessential, Neil Payne is currently the Managing Director of the company, overseeing global operations. He is also responsible for the management of cultural awareness training in Europe.
The Middle East is a region with a lot of baggage. Political events, cultural misunderstandings and religious discourse have created an air of strained relationships with the western world. However on the ground, the region is one of the most hospitable and exciting places to work. Before doing business in the Middle East it is imperative to learn about areas such as business culture, business etiquette, meeting protocol and negotiation techniques. Through such insight stereotypes are broken and barriers to communication reduced.
When doing business in the Middle East, it is wise to bear in mind the great diversity within the region. However, a common religion, language and culture make the highlighting of general traits and features for the region valid.
In this short guide to doing business in the Middle East, business culture and etiquette are explored. These are in no way meant to represent a comprehensive summation of tips on doing business in the Middle East, but a highlighting of some main areas one may consider.
One cannot talk about the Middle East in a cultural sense without mentioning Islam. Islam permeates all levels of society. It provides guidance, values and rules for personal life, community relations and ways of doing business.
Within the confines of this short introduction, justice cannot be served to such a highly complex faith. Therefore, it is advisable that one conducts their own research on Islam before doing business in the Middle East.
However, we can look at a few examples of the manifestations of Islam and the way in which these may impact your business trip.
Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day. Prayer times are announced by the mosques using the call to prayer (azan). Not all Muslims go to the mosque. Some pray at home or in the office. Daily routines, appointments and meetings must be fitted in appropriately around prayer times. Friday is the day for congregational prayers and it is obligatory for all males to attend.
Avoid trying to do business in the Middle East during the month of Ramadan. Muslims fast from dawn till dusk which involves refraining from eating, drinking or smoking. During business hours general activity is reduced depending on the nature of the company or organisation.
There are two major festivals of note. Eid al‑Fitr follows Ramadan and Eid al‑Adha follows the annual pilgrimage. These holidays last approximately three days although it is not uncommon for the government to extend these. It is best to avoid doing business on or near the two Eids.
Meeting and Greeting
The traditional Islamic greeting you will hear is ‘Asalamu alaykum’ (peace be with you). As a non‑Muslim you would not be expected to use it, but if you did you would receive the reply “wa alaykum salam” (and peace be with you).
When doing business in the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Islamic etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. Always use the right hand. Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere. Holding hands among men is common and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West.
Arabs are fairly informal with names when doing business and generally address people by their first names. John Smith will be addressed as Mr. John. Arab titles of note are: Sheikh (an old man, scholar, leader), Sayyid (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) and Hajji (one who has performed the pilgrimage).
The roles of men and women are far more defined in the Arab culture. Interaction between the sexes is still frowned upon in certain arenas. However, when doing business in the Middle East it is not uncommon to come across women.
If you are introduced to a woman as a male, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. If it is not, then do not try to shake hands. Avoid touching and prolonged eye contact with women.
Business is Personal
Many Westerners that have lived or worked in the Middle East might use the words chaotic, disorganised and frustrating when discussing doing business there. Although this is a matter of perception, it is true that business runs on very different tracks to business in the West.
The Arabs do not separate professional and personal life. Doing business revolves much more around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honour. There is a tendency to prioritise personal matters above all else. It is therefore crucial that business relationships are built on mutual friendship and trust.
A consequence of this mentality is the system known as “wasta”. If you have friends or contacts in the right places then rules can be bent or things done more quickly. The system works on the basis that favours are reciprocated and never forgotten. Although it may seem biased, it is something that should be exploited when doing business in the Middle East.
The Spoken Word
The Middle Eastern culture places more value on someone’s word as opposed to a written agreement. A person’s word is connected to their honour. Contracts are viewed as memorandums of understanding rather than binding, fixed agreements. Be sure to promise only things you can deliver. Failure to do so will result in loss of honour.
Meetings & Negotiations
Meetings should not be made too far in advance as changes in personal circumstances may impact your appointment. Once an appointment has been made, confirm it verbally with the person you will meet a few days before.
Initial meetings are all about relationship building. Building trust and establishing compatibility are key requisites for doing business in the Middle East. One should engage in conversation and try to get to know the “person” you are doing business with.
Meetings can be chaotic. Always be prepared to exercise patience. Phone calls are taken during meetings and people may enter the meeting room unannounced and proceed to discuss their own agendas.
Meetings are circular in nature. They do not follow a linear pattern and are not structured upon agendas or targets. Issues are raised as and when.
Punctuality is expected of foreigners. Although the Arabs place a high emphasis on punctuality they rarely practice it themselves. In fact, if Arabs want to stress that a set time must be adhered to they use the term “mow’id inglizee” ‑ literally, “English meeting”. However, if you are running late do not panic as polite excuses will be accepted.
If negotiating, remember the Arabs were a trading people and are excellent negotiators. Haggling takes places everywhere, whether at the shop or in the board room. Decisions are made slowly. Bureaucratic formalities tend to add to delays. Do not use high pressure tactics as they will be counter‑productive.
The PA’s View…
Elke De Backer is a 33 year old Belgian national. She has been a Personal Assistant to local VIPs in Dubai for the past three years until she joined The Coca‑Cola Company as a Senior Executive Assistant reporting to the President for the Middle East and Southern Eurasia Business Unit.
Prior to Dubai, I worked for nearly nine years at the second largest bank in Belgium where I started my career as a proofreader at the Communication Department and later moved to Group Finance to assist the Senior General Manager for four years. Quitting my job at the bank and leaving behind my family in Belgium was probably the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life. No regrets though. It made me stronger in life and that is exactly what you need to be when moving abroad.
24/7 switched on
Although I didn’t have a job when I moved to Dubai, I was incredibly lucky to have found one after only being six days in the country. That overwhelming feeling of intense happiness lasted only a few days as I got thrown into this highly demanding role to assist one of Dubai’s most well‑respected leaders in the investment field. My job was not particularly from nine to six, Sundays through Thursdays as stated in my contract. Equipped with a blackberry, a laptop and a home installed printer and fax machine, I was simply switched on 24/7. Having a VIP as a boss who was travelling 80 per cent of his time and who was on 21 boards throughout the globe, I did not leave the office before 8 pm and I did not have one weekend where he would not call me at least 10 times either to change flights, book a suite or a table at a very exclusive restaurant. The fast paced environment for what Dubai is known as, is in my opinion second to none to any other part of the world. Hence, you hardly find a nine‑to‑five job here in Dubai. Moreover, part time jobs are non‑existent.
Having studied Arabic for more than 10 years and having travelled throughout the Middle East prior to moving to Dubai, I was very much aware of the differences in culture and proper dress etiquette, although I must say that the UAE is quite tolerant towards expats. The national dress for women is an elegant black long flowing gown called “abbaya” worn with a “sheila” to cover the hair and neck. The Emirati men wear a white ankle length shirt called “dishdash” or “khandora” worn with a usually white head cloth known as “gutra” and a twisted black rope‑like coil, the “agal”. The dress code for non nationals is much the same as in their home country. However, out of respect for the local culture, a somewhat higher level of modesty is recommended. For a business meeting, dressing conservatively is the norm ‑ business suits being the obvious solution. Women should avoid skirts and low‑cut tops and instead opt for loose‑fitting trousers, or longer skirts.
Meeting and greeting
Given the fact that most Emiratis have a western educated background, they are quite attuned to worldwide accepted business customs. However, when greeting local citizens for the first time, I always wait for my counterpart to initiate the greeting. For men, handshakes are the most common form of greeting. Etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. For a man introduced to a woman, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. Particularly in public, Muslim women are unlikely to shake a man’s hand. A Western woman introduced to a Muslim man might also wait to see if he offers his hand. Always use the right hand. Among Muslims, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered therefore unclean. The right hand should be used for eating, shaking hands, or handing over an item.
In the Middle East, status is important and must be recognized by using the correct title when addressing someone. The ruler of Dubai is addressed as “His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum”. Same counts for members of the royal family, eg. “H.R.H. Princess Haya”. Ministers and ambassadors are also to be greeted as “Your Excellency” or “Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, Minister of Foreign Trade”.
Arabs generally address people by their first names. However, a very interesting and traditional greeting amongst Arabs is greeting each other for example as “abu Aisha” or “umm Bader”. Abu Aisha is the “father of Aisha” and Umm Bader is the “mother of Bader”. Local business men and women who know each other well, will quite often greet each other as “abu” or “umm” followed by the name of their first borne child.
Mind your business
In the Middle East, it is important that business relationships are built on mutual friendship and trust as doing business revolves much more around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honor. As a consequence, if you have friends or contacts in the right places, rules may be bent or things may be done more quickly. The system works on the basis that favors are reciprocated and never forgotten. Initial meetings are all about relationship‑building – building trust and establishing compatibility. You should engage in conversation and try to get to know the person with whom you are doing business. Age, money and family connections are all key determining factors of a person’s status. Who you are is usually more important than what you have achieved. It is therefore not uncommon to find many members of one family working for the same company.
In conversation, it is always good to ask about the health and well being of your counterpart’s family. How many children? (Do not ask how many wives?) Where have they studied? Taking interest in your counterpart’s family is an important way of building early trust and connection.
Punctuality is expected of Westerners even if it is not practiced by locals. Attitudes to time are more relaxed than in the West, therefore don’t be surprised to be kept waiting, though you will be expected to be on time.
Hospitality is held in high regard throughout the Middle East and people will take great pride in lavish shows of hospitality. To refuse it can cause offense. It is proper etiquette to accept beverages offered and to compliment the host on the food and his hospitality.
When sitting in a meeting, you should never show the bottom of your shoes. This is a sign of great disrespect and is a common mistake by Westerners during meetings. As a general rule, displaying the sole of your foot or touching somebody with your shoe is considered rude.
Meetings can be very chaotic as cell phone calls, emails or text messages are taken during meetings and people (family or friends) may enter the meeting room unannounced to discuss their own agenda. So be prepared to exercise patience.
In terms of gift giving, something personal can be a very meaningful touch. It would be appropriate, although not expected, to present a small gift, Very senior leaders may or may not provide a gift and it would certainly not be required to provide a gift in return.
Biog Neil Payne
As a trainer Neil specialises in the countries of the Middle East and Islam as a religion. He works with both the private and public sector on a number of initiatives ranging from assisting businesses set up in the Arab and Muslim world as well as diversity initiatives in the UK. Having grown up in Kuwait he returned to the region after his BA to travel, work and study in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Malaysia and Iran. After successfully completing an MA in Middle Eastern Studies at London’s prestigious SOAS University he established Kwintessential, now one of the world’s leading intercultural training providers. Visit www.kwintessential.co.uk for more information on the Middle East and other business cultures.