Doing business in the Middle East – 10 top tips on business etiquette
As a Westerner, you’re likely to find the way that business is conducted in the Middle East and North Africa is quite different from what you’re used to. If you’re planning to do business for the first time in the region, start your preparations by reading our top tips on Middle Eastern business etiquette.
Arranging a meeting
- Making contact
The written word is generally considered far less important than verbal communication, so a phone call is likely to be much more effective than an email when you first make contact.
Across most of the Middle East, the working week is Sunday to Thursday. Some retail and other businesses will operate a six-day week, closing on Fridays.
Usual business hours are from 8am to 1pm, then again from 4pm to 7pm, avoiding the hottest part of the day. During the month of Ramadan, some firms may reduce their business hours.
All Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day. Meetings must be fitted in around prayer times.
Starting the meeting
- Business attire
The business dress code is conservative. Men are advised to wear suits (never shorts), and women should wear loose-fitting, concealing clothes. If you’re travelling to a rural area, both men and women should completely cover their bodies.
- Greeting people
Status is very important and must be recognised by using the right title. You should always greet the most senior person in the room first.
The traditional Islamic greeting is “asalamu alaykum”, meaning “peace be with you”. Non-Muslims aren’t expected to use it. However, learning just a few words of Arabic is a good way to demonstrate that a relationship is personally important to you, and your effort will be appreciated.
Arabs usually address a person by their first name, so Joe Bloggs would be addressed as Mr Joe.
Handshakes are always used between men, and can last a long time – Islamic etiquette recommends that you wait for the other person to withdraw their hand first. If you’re introduced to a person of the opposite sex, wait to see whether they offer their hand first – if not, don’t try to shake hands.
- Making small talk
Business and personal relationships are one and the same in the Middle East, so small talk is more than just a courtesy. It’s polite to ask about the other person’s family or health, but you should never ask specifically about any female members.
In the meeting
Foreigners are expected to be on time, but Arabs are rarely punctual (if Arabs want to stress that a time must be adhered to, they use the term “mow’id inglizee” meaning “English meeting”).
Arabs are proud of their hospitality. Coffee and pastries will usually be served at meetings, and it’s considered rude to refuse.
Arab business meetings don’t usually follow a structured agenda, with issues raised as and when, meaning that they can last a very long time.
It’s not considered impolite to take phone calls or respond to emails during a meeting, and it’s not unusual for other people to enter the meeting room unannounced to discuss their own issues.
- Making decisions
Haggling takes place everywhere, meaning decisions are usually made slowly, with bureaucratic formalities adding even more delay. Be prepared to be patient.
It’s extremely rude to cause anyone else to lose face, so avoid any public criticism.
The common culture and history of the countries in the MENA region make it possible to identify general traits and features of “the Arab approach to business”. However, be aware there are nuances between the different countries. For more detailed information about doing business in a specific country, contact the local chambers of commerce or the trade office of your homeland embassy.