It’s no secret that the Middle East is becoming exceptionally wealthy thanks to its oil, natural resources and ever-growing tourism industry. Every day more and more of us are hopping on a plane to secure that all-important business deal outside of the Western world. Even with some countries struggling with political turmoil, the East is still an attractive region in which to do business. The question is: how do we ensure that we make a good first impression in a business environment that we’re not used to?
Every country within the region has its own identity and cultural practices, but there are some common traditions that you should be aware of before setting off on your first business trip to the Middle East. In order to develop lasting relationships with your Middle Eastern business partners, it helps to have an understanding of their culture and the prominent role Islam plays in it.
We’ve put together 10 simple tips to ensure that, whatever the situation, you start off with the right foot.
1. Avoid any business during the holy month of Ramadan
Every year physically able Muslims spend the ninth month of the Muslim calendar fasting during daylight hours from dawn to sunset in celebration of the Quran.
Evenings are also reserved for family and community meals, prayer and spiritual reflection. So, expect most activities, particularly anything to do with business, to be suspended for the entire month.
If you’re planning on travelling to the Middle East this year, don’t worry; you just missed it! This year Ramadan fell during the month of June. Just a heads up, though, next year Ramadan will fall between May 27 and June 25, so best to avoid those dates.
2. Dress conservatively
It can get pretty warm in the Middle East, so it’s tempting to shed a few layers of clothing, even in a business meeting. However, no matter how hot it gets, it’s important that both men and women dress conservatively.
That doesn’t mean that you have to ditch your finest suits and buy a traditional robe or hijab- just make sure that you are covering your legs and shoulders at all times.
Women should be particularly cautious about showing chest and arms too, sometimes even the neck. It isn’t obligatory for female visitors to wear a headscarf, however some tourists choose to wear one to not draw attention to themselves and to show respect for the culture.
3. Be aware of a different working week
Working weeks vary from country to country within the Middle East, and even from business to business.
The working week tends to run from Sunday to Thursday, but could also be Saturday to Wednesday. Make sure you double check this before you travel.
What is certain, though, is that Fridays- being their holy day (like Sunday in the Christian calendar)- is always a day off in the Middle East, so it’s best to use that as a travelling day if you can.
4. Food & drink
The Middle East is known for its hospitality, so it’s likely that you’ll be invited to eat, drink and socialise with your hosts sometime during your trip. Muslims don’t drink alcohol or eat pork for religious reasons, so try and avoid those when you’re in the company of your Muslim colleagues.
It’s really common for everyone to tuck in to one shared plate at the centre of the table, and often you use your hands to eat. It is considered custom, therefore, to wash your hands thoroughly before and after eating. You should also never eat or pass food around with your left hand, as this is considered unhygienic. Even having your left hand on the table is sometimes frowned upon.
5. Small talk is good…
It’s considered polite to show an interest in your colleagues and to get to know them a little better before moving on to the serious stuff.
Whilst in the Middle East, begin to see building personal relationships as part of your business transaction. A popular way to do this is by making small talk with colleagues, maybe by asking about their family or where they live for example.
6. …But don’t ask about female relatives
Ok, so this is where it can get tricky.
Discussing families is great small talk, but try not to ask directly about any female relative. This is seen as an inappropriate intrusion of privacy, and could make your colleague feel uncomfortable.
Our best advice: avoid the topic completely unless they bring it up into conversation themselves.
7. Your word is golden
Business in the Middle East is all about building rapport between colleagues. Verbal promises are more important than any written contract. Failure to keep your promise is seen a loss of honour and, consequently, a loss of trust.
Our advice: only say it if you mean it!
8. Go with the flow
Business meetings are more chaotic in the Middle East than elsewhere. They will often start late, overrun and stray from the agenda, so go with an open mind and an open diary!
9. Learn some basic Arabic
Why not learn a few basic Arabic words? A greeting, please and thank you could come in useful and makes a really great first impression.
Like any other region, many in the Middle East are exceptionally proud of their language, and see learning Arabic as a bond with the Islamic world. It also shows you’ve made an effort and intend on making lasting business relationships with your Middle Eastern colleagues.
Arabic is one of the 13 languages that we offer on our translation for travel app, so, don’t panic, we’ll be with you every step of the way if you need some extra translator help.
10. Patience is key
Be patient in meetings. It may take a little longer than you’re used to to come to a decision, conclusion or final agreement.
Discussions will often be vague and packed with metaphors. This is done to be polite and avoid any blunt rejections or demands which could harm the chance of doing a deal or cause offence.
This simple guide is not everything you should consider. There are many more customs that could come in useful to know. Following these basic steps, however, will help you to build a stronger relationship with potential trading partners in the Middle East.
Having said that, if you forget any of these steps and make a mistake along the way, don’t panic! Nine times out of ten an apology is all that is needed for it all to be forgotten, and for the business meeting to carry on as normal.
Language here is key. Having access to a good interpreter will ensure business meetings are clearly understood by all. If you need an interpreter in the Middle East, why not try whym? The app is revolutionising the way in which business discussions are made throughout the world.
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