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Top Ten CultureClues for Doing Business in the Middle East

By Dean Foster
In a region as complex and fluid as the Middle East, understanding the culture is essential to business success.

Working abroad is different. The food is different. People dress differently. People behave and even think differently. So why shouldn’t the way they do business in different cultures also be different? In many ways, it is, and you need to know before you go. Especially true if your competition knows the cultural rules, and you don’t. In the new “global world”, crossing borders is easy; crossing cultures is hard. So here are some important top ten CultureClues© to successful work in the very complex Middle East:


#10: It’s complicated

The region is mainly Muslim, but not all (Israelis are mainly Jewish; many Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians and Egyptians are Christian); the region is mainly Arab, but not all (Iranians are Persians, Turks are Turkic, most Israelis are European); the economics are staggeringly different, ranging from extreme wealth in much of Gulf Arabia to extreme poverty in much of Egypt, the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Iraq); sub-regional differences can be great (like the differences between Near Eastern, Levantine and Maghrebi or North African cultures), with tribal affiliations (Baath, Hashemite, Saudi, etc.), and religious sub- and sub-subsets (Sunni, Shia, Wahabi, etc) adding to the complexity. Arabic is the region’s main language, spoken by most Arabs, but not all, and Iranians speak Farsi, Turks speak Turkish, and Israelis speak Hebrew. Not to mention the mind-bending politics, ranging from a fairly stable democracy (Israel), a questionable democracy (Turkey), secular dictatorships (Syria), religious autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran), and outright failed states (Yemen, Iraq…see the headlines). Tread mindfully, humbly and with respect for differences that may mean little to you, but much to your colleagues in the region.


#9: Trust is everything

Communication styles vary, but in general, everything is driven by the need for trust. Most Arabs tend to be immediately warm, friendly, welcoming, sometimes over-the-top with what might seem to non-Arabs as lavish hyperbolic and exaggerated — and hence, apparently insincere — warmth and praise. It is however, very sincere, in that represents the wish for a close relationship that can be trusted and relied upon. Of course, that takes work and time, two factors you must therefore prioritize in order to succeed in the Middle East. Israelis, differently, are known for their “Sabra” communication style: prickly and gruff on the outside at first, direct and sometimes painfully honest, but once trust is built, a willing obligation for a deep and warm relationship. Suffice it to say the difference in communication styles between these two groups merely adds to the sad lack of trust that politics and history have created between them.


#8: Understand the importance of Buqra (tomorrow) 

Take your watch off when you sit down at the meeting and put it in your pocket. If you are important, things will happen as scheduled. If your relationship has not yet been established to the degree necessary for trust to exist, other, more important things and people will take priority to your schedule. Put your energy and time, at first, into creating trust, revealing yourself as a friend who is there for them for the “long-haul”, not an outsider simply looking for a deal. Until you have become important to them, expect frustration, distraction, delays, etc. In the absence of a trusting, solid relationship, “Inshallah” (Arabic for “if it is God’s will”) determines what and when things happen.


#7: Mind your Middle Eastern Manners

Put your best foot forward: there are some important etiquette issues to keep in mind. Not knowing these will slow your relationship-building down; knowing them can accelerate trust:


- Non-work days are Friday and Saturday in the Muslim world, and business slows down come Thursday night (the beginning of the Muslim sabbath). Sunday is open for business.


- Be respectful of major Muslim “Eids” (feasts) and religious holidays, especially Ramadan, an approximately month-long period of introspection and fasting during the day, which diminishes the focus on business.


- Never sit with the sole of your shoe exposed: the bottom of the shoe is the dirtiest part of the body, and it is disrespectful to have it displayed to others. Sit with your feet flat on the ground, or take your shoes off, if needed.


- Avoid using the left-hand for anything important, like passing important papers or a tray of food, or touching someone with only the left hand. Traditionally, the left hand is the hand reserved for personal hygiene, and is considered “dirty”.


- It is safest for men and women not to physically touch each other, even in greeting, in public. “Westernized” women might initiate a handshake in public with a man, but might not, and local customs, more or less (depending on the country), generally emphasize non-touching between the genders in public. However, between men and men, and women and women, there can be much physical contact in their greeting and conversation style with each other (holding hands walking down the street, or kissing in greeting, for example); should this happen, resist pulling away: it is a positive sign of a strengthening relationship.


- Traditional Arab and Persian meals are eaten with the right hand, without cutlery.

- Devout Muslims do not serve alcohol, and do not eat pork.


- Be mindful of never using religious references carelessly in your speech (i.e., “Oh, God!”) This can be seen as insensitive at best, heretical at worst.


#6: Be a Grateful Guest

You will be hosted lavishly; it is the tribal code that a host take care of their guest, going back centuries, especially in a land with a difficult and challenging topography. Doing so also demonstrates wealth and power. Therefore, never dismiss your host’s intent to insure that you are well-fed and entertained. If you eat everything on your plate, more food will appear, as an empty plate signifies that you are still hungry. If you simply cannot eat anymore, just leave a little food on your plate: that is the sign that you are full. Meals can last a long time, and be extravagant affairs. Do nothing to diminish your Arab host’s sense of pride in hosting you this way, and be equally extravagant with your thankfulness.


#5: Avoid politics

it probably won’t be brought up directly (except in Israel), but if it is, and if your political views are sought out, take the position of either a student or a teacher: humbly acknowledge that you simply do not get enough information in your country about what is going on in theirs (and the region) to have an informed opinion, and ask them to help you understand things from their point of view. Listen humbly. If they opinionate about events in YOUR country, be the teacher and explain that the situation in your home is a bit more complicated, and provide additional information to expand their contextual understanding. Keep your goal in mind: you want to build a trusting relationship, not to win a political debate.


#4: Never dress “local” (unless you ARE local)

For non-Arabs, in business, a business suit (and tie) for men, a business suit for women. For casual travelers, western-style casual clothes are fine. However, in all cases, modesty is key, especially for women: no tight -fitting clothes, and arms should be covered down to below the elbows, with legs being covered down to the ankles. Women should travel throughout the region with a headscarf at the ready at all times, to be used as needed (customs vary country by country).


#3: Giftgiving = Trust = Success

Green is the symbolic color of Islam, and therefore is an appreciated, welcome and very prominent color throughout the Islamic Middle East. Mosques are lit-up in green lights at night, books have green covers, and gifts are often wrapped in green gift-wrap. Gift-giving is a symbolic way of maintaining and strengthening valued relationships, and therefore, one should always accept a gift if presented, and be prepared to give a gift when visiting. Wrap your gift in green paper, and all gifts, no matter how small or incidental, should be wrapped. Remember to give and/or accept your gift, only with the right hand. A silver compass makes a lovely gift for your devout Muslim colleague, as it symbolizes your respect for his religious traditions (in this case, being able to identify the direction that points to Mecca that he must face for each of his five daily prayers).


#2: Adjust your English-language Competency Expectations

Anticipate that English language competency, unless you know differently, will be surprisingly low, especially outside major cities (except in Israel), and especially outside the office. Most children in the region learn English as a second language in school today, but it is mainly to read and write English, not to speak it. Therefore, people under 35 have higher levels of English competency than older people (but the older folks are more often the decision-makers), so speak with younger people if English is an issue with older people at meetings, but give them time to “translate” to the older members (and probable decision-makers) of their team. Keep all presentation slides simple, with minimal words, and have all your handout materials, if at all possible, translated into Arabic. Use culturally-appropriate pictures (no dogs or scantily-clad people in the Arab or Persian world), and use symbols or numbers in place of English words whenever possible.


#1: Be Humble and Respectful

As you can see from the above, differences abound, and they are neither wrong nor right, just different. If you want to succeed in business in the Middle East, show your colleagues that you respect — and know — the way they like to do business. They will be grateful for even just an effort in this direction, and you will earn their respect, and perhaps even their business! And if your competition knows this, and you don’t, guess who gets the business!

For more information on managing cultural differences for success in the Middle East, see my book, “The Global Etiquette Guide to the Middle East and Africa”


May this article be our little contribution towards better understanding and cooperation among the nations of the Middle East.

We wish you all a Very Happy New Hebrew Year!


Written by Dean Foster

World traveler (96 countries), cross-cultural business expert, author, speaker, intercultural training consultant, founder, former President of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions