Business etiquette Arabia: 10 cultural hacks for sealing the deal with Arabs

Published September 5th, 2013 - 14:46 GMT

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refuse food
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Image 1 of 10: Never refuse food or beverage offered - Arabs express affection through generosity, so politely declining a refreshment does not make you a professional but a rude guest. Keep an open mind and belly! A no thank you or I’m full will not wash with the host who may be judging your appetite for ventures & risk potential!

bring a bottle of wine
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Image 1 of 10: When wine does not say it best: Check yourself before bringing a bottle instead of a thank you card - In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, this gesture can land you behind bars. Just going on the fact that alcohol is legal in many Arab countries is no guarantee: it could be received favorably by a decadent drinker or frowned on by a teetotaler tycoon.

wasta
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Image 1 of 10: Know your best friend: Understand that notorious tool, Wasta! Dubbed fondly the Arab Vitamin “W”, wasta is the hidden force behind successful business transactions in the Middle East. While others know it as networking or connections, wasta transcends merely knowing someone who knows someone, but is the key mover and shaker.

greeting a man with a kiss
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Image 1 of 10: Kiss ‘n’ shake: Keep it same-sex! You won’t often hear that in the conservative ME. Businessmen, you’re better off greeting a fellow in continental kissing tradition than a lady. In the Gulf, it's safest waiting on a woman extending her hand first. Religious men are also averse to physically greeting the opposite sex. Sheikhs don't shake!

Punctuality is expected
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Image 1 of 10: Punctuality is expected but it’s a one-way street: Try to be on time, but don’t expect others to reciprocate. Expect phones to be ringing in meetings - don't be put out, the etiquette for silent phones and respecting others' time is not as you know it. Relax, you're in the Middle East!

Diwaniya
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Image 1 of 10: Get personal! A dry handshake does not a business pact make. Intimate, lengthy interactions consist of several trips to the all-male heaven of "diwaniya" (the man's harem) or shisha cafes. This coffee, chat and smoke ritual is how it's done Gulf-style. There may be very little said about business but it's a vital ingredient to sealing that deal!

islamophobia
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Image 1 of 10: Have a break! Arabs take five a day- incidentally the number of times Muslims pray during a day, so it is normal for someone to step aside for a prayer time-out during work. But not being Muslim does not have to curb the number of breaks taken. And NEVER complain that the call for prayer is too loud! That would just render you an Islamophobe.

patience
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Image 1 of 10: Worried that between all the chilling and delays, nothing will get done? As long as you maintain your good cheer, cool and supply of smokes, things will get done eventually, inshallah. If you're lucky, your deal will be fast tracked and progress will occur at the speed of light.(but keep extend your hotel booking just in case!).

diversity arab world
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Image 1 of 10: Assume nothing: Avoid falling into the stereotyping trap! There’s nothing Arabs hate more than being treated like they came out of a Fox news caricature. Understand that Arabs really are diverse. A bottle of wine might be the most appreciated gift in Beirut, and the "diwaniye" hang-out might switch to a nightclub in Dubai.

upset man
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Image 1 of 10: Stress not, go with the flow! Laugh at silly jokes but leave the sarcasm out. Keep the politics on the low: don’t slate Assad or do down Morsi before you’ve been led by the host. While the region is the hot-bed of news, it doesn't make it an easy conversation starter.

The Middle East remains one of the most promising and misunderstood markets in the world. While plagued by poverty and economic inequality, it is still home to the highest GDP/capita rates. That means that along with a plethora of economic hurdles, the MENA’s wealth opens up unlimited potential.  

While doing business the ‘Arab’ way became synonymous with notions of nepotism, cronyism, and unprofessionalism, the Middle East is undergoing times of huge social and political transitions. A more pragmatic attitude to hold is that Arab businesses come with a very particular set of codes and practices that one would be wise to bear in mind in order to get things done.

Arabs do take business personally (as they do many other matters), which means that concepts of honor, hospitality, and saving face pervade carrying out business deals.  Besides the patently obvious, like not expecting to get anything done on Fridays, it’s useful to keep some of these other traditions and etiquette (or lack thereof!) in mind.

How do Arabs seal the deal?

While in Japan it’s good to know that averting your eyes rather than holding a gaze is best practice, in the Arab world it may be wise to laugh at the heavy-handed humor of your host.

You’ll hardly have your checkbook in the door if you go in for a gushing cheeky kiss to the conservative hostess. Will there be camels exchanged or promised daughters’ hands in marriage as part of the transaction?

What of the business parlance?

Will you seal the deal with a coffee or a handshake?

Read and get something of a loose idea of how it’s done Arab-style.

 

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