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BUSINESS ETIQUETTE IN THE MIDDLE EAST: HOW TO MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION AND IMPROVE YOUR RELATIONS

Business Management

BUSINESS ETIQUETTE IN THE MIDDLE EAST: HOW TO MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION AND IMPROVE YOUR RELATIONS

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In a global economy, cultural sensitivity has become an important management skill. From a marketing perspective, you need to understand a region’s customs and values to be able to communicate with your audience and serve their needs. Creation Business Consultants – a firm of UK & Australian company set-up experts who have helped hundreds of companies expand their presence in the United Arab Emirates and wider GCC region – shares these tips on business etiquette for the Middle East. 

The Importance of Business Etiquette in the Middle East 

In everyday business dealings, cultural awareness can make or break your relationship with your regional clients, partners and employees. Even experienced executives can commit cultural faux pas that affect their ability to do their job well. “When I was first assigned to lead the Middle East office, I felt that my co-workers were uncomfortable with me. I didn’t understand why, until someone later told me that I came across as too cold or arrogant at meetings. I can be very direct and go straight to business, because that is the way we do things at home, but it was misinterpreted as being pushy,” says Josh B., a vice president for a software company. 

That’s why it’s helpful when you have a company like Creation Business Consultants to help you when you set up business in the Middle East. Aside from helping you with business reviews, strategies, licenses and other documents, they can also help executives become more familiar with the local business culture. Sometimes, what is common and acceptable in Western corporate world doesn’t work in the Middle East. 

Religious celebrations and Holy Days 

Bear these days in mind when you set meetings or corporate events with your partners in the Middle East.

  • Friday is a holy day. Friday is a holy day in Islam, and congregational prayers are held at noon. For this reason, many Arabic countries set Friday and Saturday as their weekend, rather than Saturday and Sunday. 
  • Prayer time. “Salat” is the Muslim prayer, which must be recited five times a day: dawn (Salat al-fajr), midday (Salat al-zuhr), late afternoon (Salat alásr), after sunset (Salat al-mahrib), and between sunset and midnight (Salat al-ísha). Some offices have a dedicated prayer area. Do not interrupt anyone during their prayer time! 
  • Ramadan. This is the biggest and most sacred event in the Islamic calendar: a month of fasting, prayer and reflection, which is meant to bring Muslims closer to Allah. 
  • Eid Al-Fitr. Celebrated after the end of Ramadan, it is a time of celebration and feasting. N some countries, it can last for several days. Most businesses are closed during this time.  
  • Eid Al-Adha.  This is another is another important public holiday, with celebrations lasting between 2 to 4 days. 

The Importance of Personal Meetings and Relationships 

In the Middle East, face-to-face meetings are still the most common form of communication. Emails and phone calls can be good for follow-up or documentation, but if you have an important client – or an important point that you need to discuss – it’s better to meet up. You avoid miscommunication, which can happen in emails or calls because of cultural and language barriers. Face-to-face meetings allow you to clarify or emphasize what you mean, and the small talk and regular interactions can eventually strengthen your connection, trust and business relationship.  

 Of course, one of the biggest challenges is securing a meeting with a senior executive that you have not yet done business with. It may be helpful to work with intermediaries or contact-sponsors who can set up the first meeting.   

The Art of Disagreeing 

One of the most important aspects of business etiquette in the Middle East is the concept of “saving face.” Do not embarrass or disrespect your colleagues, employees or clients. While conflict and disagreement are normal in a business setting, always be tactful and respectful. If you must reprimand someone, do it in private. If you have an opposing opinion, phrase it carefully.  Don’t say, “That’s a crazy idea. It’ll never work.” Instead, say: “That’s an excellent point, but let’s look at other options, too. What do you think about…”

Logistics and Schedules

When you are entering negotiations or planning a project, adjust your timelines to account for possible red tape or long discussions. This is especially true if you are working with a person or company for the first time. In the Middle East, business relationships and gut feel are just as important as facts and figures. If you have not yet earned their trust, they may want more meetings or time to learn more about you.  

These delays can be frustrating and derail your business plans. To avoid this, you can work with a company like  Creation Business Consultants to help you with company formation... sometimes it takes as short as seven days! You retain 100% control of your business, and get advice on the best structures to optimizes taxes. You don’t even need a physical presence in the region to begin operations.  

Verbal Agreements 

You may be used to contracts, contact reports, or written proof of agreements. However, you do need some flexibility when you negotiate in the Middle East. While they also understand the importance of legal documentation and contracts, there is also a lot of trust and sense of honor: “I am as good as my word.”  Being overly obsessed with written proof or formal deadlines may come off as distrustful or rigid. So, play it by ear and know which points really require a contract and which can be a gentleman’s agreement.   

 In the same vein, don’t make promises you can’t keep – even if it’s something you feel was just casually said in an informal lunch or social function. You have to show them that you are a man of your word, too.

Wasta

“Wasta” refers to the reality of how having business or social connections to get things done. For example, you know someone in the local government who can fast-track a permit. Or, you’re able to get a “friendly” price because you (or someone in your organization) has a better relationship with the supplier. 

Wasta has been oversimplified as nepotism or favoritism, but it really part of a business culture that deeply values trust and personal relationships. For those who want to do business in the Middle East, take Wasta as a sign of how you need to invest in your network and your reputation. Socializing and building business relationships are critical to succeeding in this region. Your contacts and connections can open doors, set up meetings, introduce you to the right people, and expedite projects. In other words – don’t skip those business cocktails.

Hospitality and business events

Since socializing is such a big part of Middle Eastern business etiquette and negotiations, here are some tips on how to conduct yourself at parties.

  • Don’t talk business right away. That can come off as aggressive and insincere. Engage in small talk, and get to know the other people. If you want to raise a business concern, do so only after you’ve establish a rapport, and don’t dwell too long on it. Instead, offer a friendly invitation to meet up for lunch to discuss it further. 
  • Bring a token to a party. It is good to bring a thank you gift for the party host. However, don’t bring alcohol, since some Muslims do not drink. You may bring fruit, chocolates, pastries or other safe gifts. 
  • Reciprocate the hospitality. If someone invites you to a dinner, it is proper to send a similar invitation later on. 
  • Don’t refuse hospitality. It is considered to be snobbish – or even offensive – if you turn down the offer of a meal or a gift. Accept it graciously, especially since the person may take pride in his ability to lavish you with hospitality. 

The Subtleties of a Handshake 

Don’t rush through greetings and introductions. When you shake hands, don’t let go right away. In Middle Eastern and Islamic etiquette, it is polite to wait for the other person to release their hand first. If you are a male and meeting female colleagues, wait for them to extend their hand first.  

Mealtime Etiquette 

These tips can help you conduct yourself appropriately at business lunches or social functions. 

  • Remove your shoes before sitting down on a rug to eat or drink.
  • Don’t handle food with your left hand.
  • Leave a little food on your plate. An empty plate may give your host the idea that you have not been given enough.
  • At a sit-down dinner, it’s polite to wait to be offered food, or wait for the host’s invitation to begin eating. 
  • Always accept food that is offered to you.
  • Always sit next to a person of the same sex at the dinner table, unless your host suggests otherwise.   
  • When you sit, don’t stretch out your legs in front of you – this is considered rude. 
  • Don’t take photos of a person without asking permission.

These are just some tips for conducting business in the Middle East. For more information on how to grow your business in that region, go https://www.creationbc.com/