Understanding People: Key to Better Business in the Middle East

Understand Middle East Business is Human to Human H2H

Learn a Little about the History and Culture              

It is Never Just Business in the Middle East

Success in the Middle East

One of the secrets to being successful in the Middle East is to understand people and their culture. It is important to recognize there are regional differences from one country to another and to do business you should familiarize yourself as to what these are.  Negotiating bureaucracy and cutting through red tape can be accomplished simply by understanding these differences. The purpose of this article is to explain these differences and put you in a stronger position to do business in the Middle East.

1.    Remember it is never just Business-   In the west some professionals use the phrase ‘it’s just business’. This is shorthand for ‘I’m going to put the business first regardless of the human fallout. If you are unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of that fallout, it was not a personal thing.

In the Middle East you are advised to put this thinking on the back burner. It is fair to say that most people prefer a more comfortable business environment. As such they prefer to do business with people they like.  Subsequently, if you can come across as professional yet approachable, you will do more successful business. Distinction between business and personal relationships is not a concept in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region; it’s preferred to do business with people they like and respect and in turn feel respected by.

2.    Engage in small talk-  This is more than just an icebreaker as the chances are that during a conversation about the weather and other seemingly innocuous topics, you are being assessed as to whether you will make a suitable business partner.

3.    Learn a few Arabic words-  You do not have to be fluent but being able to say ‘hello’ (Al salam Alikum, Marhaba, Keefak), ‘goodbye’, and ‘thank you’, will make you come across as polite, accepting and less close minded. Moreover, in a business setting this will help show the human side of you. This makes it easier for a future Middle East business partner to do work with you.

4.    Know the culture and history before you arrive-  Knowing a little culture and history of your host country will be of considerable help both to your business and personal life in your expat country. It is good practice to gather information first, and use reliable sources. Western media often portrays a very stereotypical, inaccurate view of the EMENA region, and this is very different to what you will find when you arrive. Although there are many common histories between the countries, there are also differences. This is comparable to Europe, where as a continent a lot of the history is entwined, but yet each country has its own history, together with individual cultures.For example in some parts of the region, shaking hands with women is not a good idea. In other parts it’s fine. You have to know swearing is frowned upon. It is also wise to know the dress code of your expat country. Most people tend to agree to dress conservatively at first, until you have worked out what is and what is not acceptable. Even shopping malls have dress codes, and although often ignored by expats, misunderstanding may occur, especially in the holy month. Learn this culture and history, of where you will be living and working, and you will be more successful. More useful and better sources of information would be local people, people who have been there and reliable books,Maya angelou in her book Letter to my daughter page 57 describes the Moroccan coffee experience, scene of utter respect in which she was offered an “unusual ” cup of coffee in Morocco.

5.   Negotiation-  Negotiating in Middle Eastern countries is very different to the west. Often the people of the Middle East will speak in metaphors and cite extravagant examples and speak about personal experiences. Make an effort to know the person and read between the lines to reach out to your business partner, colleague or customer. From your side of the negotiating table, it is important to keep communications simple and easy to follow.

At every meeting, ensure:

  • You are respectful and avoid arrogance – It is very easy to upset parties during a negotiation. Outright rejection and insulting business partners will not be tolerated and is sure to see deals collapse. Always state you will consider proposals even if they were unworkable.

  • You cover the angles – At no time should you rely on feedback to tell whether or not your future business partners understand what is on the table. Often, potential business partners will nod not in understanding the finer points of a deal, but to show you respect and to indicate they will work with you. Further nods will be more business aligned. To avoid delays it is a good idea to ensure you give full explanations and implications of a proposal.

  • You are prepared for hard negotiations – Although courteous, the people of the Middle East can drive a hard bargain. Remember, when negotiating be respectful and clear.

6.   Remember you are a Welcome Guest-  To imagine the experience of doing business and living in the EMENA region remember the days you were visiting a family member in another city. You were made to feel welcome and comfortable like it’s your home, but you could not change their way of living. The same applies in the Middle East and it is a good idea to keep this in mind.

The secret to business in the Middle East is more human to human (H2H), than business to business (B2B).


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