How To Conduct Business In The Middle East
While the Middle East is obviously not a single country, it is a very strongly tied-together region. For the sake of discussing business etiquette, grouping all the Middle East together as one entity is valid because the region shares a strong attachment to their religion, language and culture.
How To Dress
The Middle East has long been perceived as a conservative region with deep ties to religion. This conservative attitude along with a strong attachment to Islam has an effect on what they perceive as appropriate business attire.
Male business attire is not much different from what is typical in the Western world. A nice, conservative suit is the standard and it is expected that jewelry and accessories are kept to a minimum. Choose a tie that matches the color of the pants and jacket you are wearing. Men should always keep their jackets on unless the host removes his or gives permission.
Expectations for female business attire, however, can vary greatly from what is commonly accepted in the Western world. Women should always extensively research the country they are visiting to determine how strict the rules are for business attire. Some countries allow very conservative business attire (legs and arms being covered is a must) and others will expect women to cover their faces in public. Although rules can often be bent for foreigners with regards to attire, being thoroughly prepared for any scenario is essential.
Also important to note is that it is not necessary or normally acceptable for foreigners to wear traditional clothing like a thobe, keffiyeh, or tagiyah.
To Westerners, conducting business in the Middle East can be a frustrating experience. Taking the time to learn and understand why things are done the way they are is key to being successful. There are many differences in terms of the pace of the overall process as well as individual meetings and in terms of what sort of behavior is acceptable.
Personal Over Professional
In most Arab countries, there is no line drawn between personal and professional lives. Doing business in the Middle East revolves around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honor. It is not uncommon for the rules to be bent slightly if strong connections to people in the “right places” are involved.
While the Middle East may be viewed as a conservative and formal culture, certain aspects of their behavior in the business environment may seem very loose and informal. One example that stands out is that it is relatively common for Middle Eastern men to hold the hand of their male guest when leading him somewhere. Furthermore, it is ill-advised to schedule appointments far in advance as personal matters tend to come up and take precedence over professional matters. Additionally, Middle Easterners tend to be relatively informal when it comes to names. For example, John Doe would commonly be addressed as “Mr. John” in the Middle East.
Business meetings in the Middle East will usually be perceived as chaotic to most Westerners. However, this chaos does not mean that Middle Easterners do not care about the process.
Punctuality is expected of foreigners, though Arabs tend to not be overly punctual themselves. Being late to a meeting is not the end of the world and a polite excuse for the tardiness will usually suffice.
Meetings in the Middle East typically do not follow a strict agenda and various sorts of interruptions are normal. Middle Easterners tend to favor negotiation and discussion over the conversation being dictated by one side. Discussions may seem drawn out to foreigners as Arabs have a history of making decisions very slowly. Foreigners should avoid using high-pressure tactics as they normally end up being counterproductive.
The Role Of Religion
Just as there is a very faint line between personal and professional matters, religion (specifically Islam), plays an enormous role in the professional world of the Middle East. Foreigners need to be aware of religious holidays, prayer habits, gender roles, and proper greetings.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day and their business schedules will need to be fit in around those times. Another thing to be mindful of is the congregational prayers that all Muslim males are required to attend every Friday.
Foreigners should be wary of attempting to conduct business with Muslims during the month of Ramadan. It is common for general business activity to be reduced during this time as well as during the holidays of Eid al-Fitr (following Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (following the annual pilgrimage).
Islam also plays a huge part in defining gender roles and what constitutes a proper greeting. If it is appropriate to interact with a woman at all, men are not supposed to shake a woman’s hand unless she offers her hand first. The proper verbal greeting is “Asalamu alaykum” which translates to “peace be with you” in English. When greeted with “Asalamu alaykum”, the appropriate response is “wa alaykum salam” which translates to “and upon you be peace” in English.
There are a couple of golden rules when dining in the Middle East, but, as a whole, dining etiquette does not differ greatly from that of Western society.
Similarly to the Western world, being respectful to the host and dressing in formal business attire is a must. Guests are also encouraged to try every dish on the table.
Some key differences exist in how the meal is consumed and what is considered inappropriate. Dinner guests should only use their right hand at the table. Whether eating, passing food, or drinking, it is strictly taboo for the left hand to be used. Food is often served in a communal fashion where guests can scoop food from a central dish with their right hand or with a piece of pita bread. Alcohol is off limits as Muslims are not allowed to consume it. Guests should also avoid humor unless given cues from the host that suggest it is acceptable.