04 March 2013

Business Styles – The Middle East

Last week I ran a very successful seminar on DOING BUSINESS IN THE MIDDLE EAST for the MIDDLE EAST ASSOCIATION. The Middle East, especially the Gulf and the Emirates are very positive growth areas with much greater liberalisation of foreign investment but you need to be sensitive to the cultural differences.

Obviously, many of those you deal with will have been educated in or be familiar with the UK or the US.  Also, traditionally, these countries have relied on foreign labour, particularly Indian and Pakistani, to run businesses. However, there are big changes as the Gulf states diversify their economies and increasingly try to involve their own citizens in the workforce. In Oman, for example, despite dependence on a predominantly South Asian workforce, the government is making determined efforts to find employment for local Omanis.

So, if you are doing business in the Arabian Gulf or working with Gulf colleagues, what cultural factors do you need to take into account? Here are ten things I’ve found useful.


In the Middle East like and trust is the foundation of successful business. This is why regular personal contact is vital and takes time. One of the rarely recognised costs in international business is management time. Working with overseas colleagues and partners demands greater attention to personal relationships.  You need to make and maintain personal contact with your Middle Eastern colleagues and clients (whether this be phone calls, emails, personal contact, hospitality and the giving and receiving of small gifts). In the Middle East this is more important than is normally the case in business relationships in the UK or US. Good relationships benefit from a local office with a people centred manager on the ground or a trusted local agent. In large projects, particularly construction, this becomes vital.


Most parts of the Middle East do not insist that foreigners subject themselves to Islamic norms and customs, but it is common sense when with devout Muslim colleagues to refrain from ordering pork or drinking alcohol in their presence. Dress codes for women are more modest in the Middle East and men have to be careful about enquiring about or wanting to greet wives. The wife of the colleague whom you entertained to dinner in London may be kept behind the scenes when you visit the family home in Riyadh. Your wife or partner can go and say hello but you shouldn’t.  In the same way, in Ramadan don’t consume food when everyone else is abstaining. Wait until you are back in your hotel or your own environment. Middle Easterners in general are extremely forbearing of European and American cultural differences but they are also very appreciative when you show you know and care.


It is important to show that you respect your business partner, their position and their family. This doesn’t necessarily mean formality. Your Middle Eastern business partner will most often be charming, friendly and informal, on first name terms. But they are acutely aware of their own position in their society, their family and the social and political hierarchy.

This means you should show respect to them in the presence of third parties, whatever the level of informality in your own relationship.


In the Middle East hierarchy matters and decisions will be taken by people at the top. However, this is always done after consultation with trusted associates. Hopefully, in time, that will include you. This has two implications. One is that local managers who take initiatives that are not sanctioned by head office may be considered unreliable and untrustworthy. The other is that your Middle Eastern colleagues may consider local initiatives to be the result of head office policy and that may not be the case. Consistency of policy and practice is important here, even in the face of what might appear to be inconsistency on the other side.


In much of the Middle East timing is by personal priority rather than by impersonal timetables.

This means appointments may not always start on time, may be interrupted and that things do not happen at the time you have agreed they will. This is a cause of immense frustration to many Western businesspeople who often consider it a sign of laziness, inefficiency or, at worst, rudeness. In some cases it may
be, but a more likely explanation is that something or someone got in the way. The way to deal with this is to roll with the punches and not stand on ceremony. Your tolerance will be tacitly appreciated.


Many people in international business argue that this is the case anywhere in the world, but in the Middle East it is particularly important. In many states, the Royal Family or the political elite is also involved in business and your or your agent’s contacts in the right places can help or hinder your business. Remember, however, that this cuts both ways. Your Middle Eastern colleagues will want to know that you have decision-making authority on your own account or that you have the ‘ear’ of or a direct line to the decision maker on your side.


Many business colleagues we know here prefer to do business byemail. And if they don’t get a response, they email again, and again. My Abu Dhabi colleagues, on the other hand, call me. ‘My friend,’ they say, out of the blue after six months, ‘Why haven’t you called me?’

The lesson is obvious and it is a rule throughout the region. If you’re going to send an important email, call them first to tell them. Then send it. If necessary, call up and check they’ve got it. Then call up to check they’ve responded. If you want a response, put in the effort.


There is a tendency to complain, often bitterly, at the frustrations of business life. However, it is really important to remain positive. If you want to make a complaint, always provide an escape route. Never blame someone personally. Blame outside factors. This will normally receive agreement and ensure co-operation in achieving a speedy solution.


The British and the Americans tend to be good at saying what they want and then why they want it. Middle Easterners tend to be better at explaining the context and then saying what they want. And this can take time. The payoff is you are showing interest and building the relationship. If you have to interrupt and move on, do it politely and apologetically, and explain why.


Sometimes your Middle East colleagues may ask you a favour. This is a sensitive subject, both for them and for you. For example, “Can you get my son into Stowe?” You may not know the head teacher, you may not even know about Stowe (a British pubic school) and you may not do favours for anybody, even your own family. But you must never say “no” outright. To do so is like saying, “I do not wish to co-operate with you,” and can have all sorts of negative implications for the business relationship. The correct answer is, “I’ll see what I can do.” You may not be able to do anything. Your business colleague may know or very soon realise you can’t do anything, but the important thing is you have shown willingness.

To find out more about SIMON & SIMON’s range of cultural training courses, and how these could benefit your organisation click here – or call us now, on 020 7821 0999

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