Doing Business in the Middle East – Culture & Etiquette

There are many misconceptions about doing business in the Middle East. It’s only by doing your research and by experiencing it for yourself that you can break down some of the myths and stereotypes.

skyscrapers in middle east business disctrict

Middle East Culture

Middle East culture is so diverse that one country’s approach to business is likely to be somewhat different from another’s.

Because of this diversity, this article can only illustrate the general issues you need to be aware of.

It’s important that you research the specific country you’re heading to. This will help gain an understanding of how business is done there.


The Importance of Islam

The Islamic faith is not simply restricted to times of prayer. It is woven into all areas of life in the Islamic world. This includes personal values, community relations and the way in which people do business.

You need to firstly understand that Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day. Some Muslims do not pay a visit to a mosque to do this. They will instead pray in the office. But any meetings will still need to be planned around prayer times.

Fridays are never a good day to plan a meeting. On these days males are required to attend congregational prayers, and you should avoid the month of Ramadan too.


Meeting People Formally

You’ll get accustomed to being greeted with the phrase ‘Assalamu alaykum or ‘alaikum”. This translates into English as ‘Peace be with you’.

As this is a Muslim greeting, you are not obliged to use it. However, if you decide to, you’ll be answered with ‘Wa alaykum salam’ which translates as ‘And peace be with you’.

If you decided to exchange business cards, do so with your right hand. Never use the left hand.


Shaking Hands

Middle East culture does observe the use of handshakes in a similar fashion to the Western world. There is a slight difference in style, however.

Whilst you still shake hands using your right hand, be prepared for the fact that the handshake can last quite a long time. To be on the safe side, you should let your host release your hand.

Don’t get ruffled and try to remove your hand from their grip as that is considered disrespectful. You may also find that Middle Eastern business people will want to hold your hand as you walk along.

Especially if you’re a man, do not be disconcerted by this. It’s traditional in some parts of the Middle East and does not have the same connotations as it does in the West, but is considered respectful.

You’ll also notice that you’ll be referred to with your title and first name as opposed to title and surname. That means a man called Bill Jones would be addressed as ‘Mr Bill’.


Gender

If you are introduced to a businesswoman as a male, you should wait to see if they offer you their hand to shake.

If they don’t, then don’t try to shake hands with them yet don’t feel they are being disrespectful either. Don’t try to touch a woman on the shoulder or grab their hand during a conversation. You should also try to avoid lengthy eye contact.


Business Meetings

Because business and family commitments are so interconnected in the Middle East, always confirm any meetings a couple of days beforehand. Sudden family commitments can often be given priority.

Meetings can tend to be a bit disorganised. They’ll often not follow any specific agenda, raising issues as and when in no particular order.

They can sometimes be noisy, and can be interrupted by people who enter the room unannounced to discuss their own issues.

Telephone calls can also interrupt the flow of any meeting at any time so be prepared to be patient, flexible and to expect the unexpected.

And, although it sounds hypocritical, Middle Eastern business people place a lot of emphasis on your punctuality. But they will not appear too concerned if they don’t turn up on time.

They do, however, understand that as an English person, you may have a set timetable and need to discuss specific issues. If that’s the case, you should state that you’re looking to hold a ‘mow’id inglizee’ which means ‘English meeting’ and they should oblige.


Business Negotiations in the Middle East

If you’ve ever visited Muslim countries on holiday, you will be unsurprised that Middle Eastern business people are masters in the art of haggling.

This extends to the board room as well as the market stalls and shops. You should not be surprised if you’re subject to a long drawn out bartering process. However, don’t try to drive too hard a bargain or be forceful in your negotiations as that will often backfire on you.

As mentioned earlier, however, these are just general guidelines for the region as a whole. You should do your homework and find out more about the culture and the etiquette of the area you’re travelling to before you head out on business.

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