With the globalization of business, the Middle East has become one of those regions offering opportunities to those with the ambition to expand the reach of their business into other markets. If you are thinking of traveling to the region’s countries on business, you should be aware of the differences that you will encounter in how business and personal affairs are conducted. There is certainly no need to be put off as this is a part of the world where business is very welcome, but learning about the differences in culture and outlook compared to Western markets gives you the necessary insight into what you can expect.
For the naïve among us, the idea of business in the Middle East is one that is focused on oil and its production, and though some countries in the region are notable oil producers, this is a diverse area in terms of the business opportunities available. You only have to look at the career of someone such as Fahad Al Rajaan to get an idea of the wealth of opportunities in the region. A former Head of International Operations for Ahli United Bank with responsibility for Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, and the UK, Al Rajaan has brought that experience to bear on his role as Director General of Kuwait’s Public Institution for Social Security (PIFSS). PIFSS runs Kuwait’s social security system and invests worldwide on its behalf.
Timing is a critical issue in terms of conducting business in Arab countries, and you should be aware of the different working week compared to Western societies. Friday is the Holy Day. As such, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, with a number of exceptions. You should try to avoid business trips around the time of the two major festivals in the Muslim calendar. These are Eid al-Fitr, at the end of the fast during Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which comes at the end of the Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The Islamic calendar adheres to lunar and not solar movements, so when these festivals occur will vary by country and by year. The month of Ramadan sees Muslims fast from dawn until dusk, and everyday life – including business – is likely to be disrupted. If you are in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it is etiquette for you to eat and drink away from the public eye. In some countries, such as Jordan and Egypt, there are sizable Christian minorities, so you can expect some disruption to business over the Christmas period.
A big mistake would be to assume that the Middle East is heterogeneous and that what is an accepted practice in one country also applies across other countries in the region. Not only is that a big mistake, but it also risks offending your hosts, who would undoubtedly be left wondering just how serious you are about wanting to do business with them. For instance, the giving and receiving of gifts is common in many Arab societies, and that practice would extend to business meetings, but one exception is Saudi Arabia. There, you would not be expected to bring a gift with you unless you were invited to someone’s home.
It is a good idea to learn some Arabic before visiting a country where it is spoken. It will be widely assumed that you do not have any Arabic, and English is widely spoken in business circles, so taking the trouble to at least master some basic phrases will tell those you want to do business with just how serious your intentions are. Handshakes are the normal form of greeting, but they are typically more enthusiastic and longer-lasting than Western handshakes. As a man greeting an Arab businesswoman, you should wait for her to initiate a handshake, and many conservative-minded women will choose not to. As a Western businesswoman visiting an Arab country, you should wait for businessmen to offer the handshake first.
Gaining the trust of someone is critical in business no matter where you go in the world. A face-to-face meeting is essential to gain trust in an Arab culture, and you may be surprised to find that there is no dividing line between business and personal, so expect to engage in a lot of small talk. Meetings can be very circular in nature, rather than the linear structure that is typical of a business meeting in the West, so prepare for many disruptions and do not be offended. Negotiations can be slow, and it is in the culture to drive a hard bargain, so your business skills will be tested.
Traveling to the Middle East for business offers up a wealth of opportunities, and with the right preparation and approach to doing business, you can turn those same opportunities into results.
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