Working with the Middle East

Nissrin Zaptia

This morning I was reminded of someone I met a few years ago who used to live and work in the UAE. He is now back in the UK offering cross cultural seminars and consultancy for Westerners with business interests in the Middle East.  I won’t divulge his name, but what I can say, is that even though he spent a long period of time in the region he still managed to offend the rulers of the land by using a culturally inappropriate play on words to name his company!

If you have just won a project or are looking to work in the UAE the first thing you need to do is rid yourself of the stereotypes and myths the region carries and approach your new venture with a willingness to learn about the local business culture, business etiquette, meeting protocols and negotiation techniques.

In the Arab world, business is personal.  Arabs place more value on someone’s word than a written agreement as doing business revolves more around personal friendships, family ties, trust and honour.  Some may perceive doing business in the region as chaotic, disorganised and frustrating – this is because it works on a system called ‘wasta’ – ‘who you know’.  Knowing people in the right places means that things can be done more quickly and the system works on the basis that favours are reciprocated and never forgotten.  This is often defined in the UK as ‘pull’ and is not routine when conducting business in the West.

As a Westerner you will not be expected to use the traditional Islamic greeting but handshakes are always used and can be quite lengthy.  Etiquette requires that you wait for the other person to withdraw their hand before doing the same and ALWAYS use your right hand.  It is normal to see Arab men holding hands – it does not have the same meaning as in the West.  Arabs are fairly informal with names so you can expect be addressed by your first name and it is worth noting the following Arab titles: Sheikh (older man or Scholar), Sayyid (descendant of the Prophet Mohammed) and Haj (one who has performed the pilgrimage).

So……. you have your first client meeting.  You did the right thing by not booking too far in advance and you re-confirmed a couple of days before you are scheduled to fly out. You have put an agenda together and you and your team have spent a long time preparing a presentation.

While you are keen to attend to the business matters at hand, you should be aware that initial meetings are all about relationship building.  It is important to engage in conversation and try to get to know the person you are doing business with.

DON’T be disheartened if your client has kept you waiting and when he/she does arrive you do not have his/hers’ undivided attention – expect phone calls to be taken during meetings and unrelated people entering the room unannounced to discuss their own matters.  This is how meetings take place as all issues are raised as and when they arise.  Acceptance and patience are key in these instances.

While the role of men and women is more defined in the Arab world don’t be surprised to see women in the workplace. If you are male and are introduced to a woman only extend your hand if she has extended hers and definitely no prolonged eye contact! If you are a woman doing business in the Middle East don’t be put off.  As I mentioned before, if you rid yourself of the stereotypes you will be pleasantly surprised!

Note that this brief article only covers doing business in the UAE. While similar cultural traits are practiced all over the Middle East and North Africa, there is great diversity in the region.