Doing Business in the Middle East: Cultural Interactions

The Middle East has the reputation of being a complicated region, stereotypes are an important part of the image: extremist Muslims and veiled women. However, the Middle East is also an important area to do business and it is useful to have some knowledge of the cultural customs in order to avoid misunderstandings.

The Middle East

First of all, the name Middle East is deceptive, it gives the impression of an area with the same culture. Of course there are similarities; the area is largely Islamic and most people speak Arabic, but there are major cultural differences within the area. Despite these differences, it is nevertheless possible to make a number of general statements.

Islam

Because Islam is an all-pervasive religion, it is important to take this into account. For example, Ramadan is an inconvenient time to do business, daily life is turned upside down and people are less concerned with business than with their religion. It is also important to know when the two most important festivals, Eid al-Fitr (the Eid al-Fitr) and Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice), are. These are days when business life comes to a standstill.

The spoken word

Although a contract is of utmost importance and is also recommended in the Quran, the spoken word is of great value. With a promise someone puts his/her honor at stake and honor is an important thing in the Middle East, no one wants to lose face, so they will try to keep a promise. However, before an agreement is concluded there must be negotiation and Arabs have a great reputation as negotiators, so this is something that often takes a lot of time.

Personal

The personal and business worlds are much less separated in the Middle East, which is why many companies are also family businesses, family always gets immediate trust. And relationships will always use and be used to arrange things, the so-called ‘wasta’.

Women and business

Depending on the country where one does business, people may or may not be surprised when a woman heads a company. In countries like Saudi Arabia it will not be easy for a woman to do business, but in countries like Lebanon or Egypt things will be a lot easier. As a woman, it is important to keep in mind that not all men will want to shake a woman’s hand; therefore always wait for the initiative of the other party. A devout Muslim will place his hand on his chest and bow slightly. Keep in mind that this does not mean disrespect, but is a way of showing respect from his point of view. Conversely, it is not wise for men to get too personal with local women and not to maintain eye contact for too long.

Dates

Time is a different concept in the Middle East than in the West. Being late for an appointment is very common and meetings are less structured and, in the eyes of Westerners, often chaotic. In addition, many Arabs have the habit of sitting and talking very close to the other, the body space is clearly different.

Some simple tips:

  • do not eat pork or drink alcohol in the presence of Muslims, especially during Ramadan
  • do not eat, drink or smoke in public during Ramadan
  • When sitting, make sure you do not show the soles of your shoes/feet, the soles of your feet and shoes are considered dirty and unclean and this is considered an insult
  • Arabs are generally very hospitable and almost always offer food and drinks, accept this hospitality
  • use your right hand to eat and drink
  • avoid conversations about politics and religion
  • shake hands both upon arrival and departure
  • avoid asking a Muslim about his wife and daughters, but ask about his family more generally