Successful Business Practices in the Middle East
Companies from outside the Middle East are increasingly doing business in this region and may find themselves facing unforeseen challenges stemming from cultural nuances. Understanding the cultural values which drive business practices in the region will enable global mobility leaders to be more successful.
The Middle East is a geographical and cultural region that includes parts of northern Africa and south-eastern Europe, and Arabs constitute the majority cultural group whose values drive many of the predominant business practices in the region.
Effective Business Communications
Communication with those in the region is highly contextual, indirect, and effusive. Arabs tend to be non-confrontational and will use analogies, euphemisms and metaphors instead of making direct statements. Non-verbal language is given as much credence as the spoken word. Thus, when utilizing face to face or video communication methods, eye contact, facial expression, and tone of voice are extremely important. Pay attention to nuances and changes in the overall atmosphere of the conversation. For example, the answer “yes” can mean “yes,” “no,” or anything in between, the actual meaning is often evident in the contextual non-verbal communication; the answer “no” is rarely given.
Global mobility leaders who are from a culture where direct communication is valued should make a concerted effort to be loquacious when speaking, using more adjectives in order to avoid appearing rude. In this context, it is important to remember that direct questions do not always lead to direct answers. Speaking Arabic is effective in building relationships regardless of one’s fluency. Being humble about abilities, while admiring the linguistic capabilities of natives will show respect.
It is important to leverage face-to-face or video meetings where possible to help convey contextual cues. In its absence, phone calls instead of email will lead to a higher level of effectiveness. When communicating through written transcription, like email or presentations, apply the same principals. For example, while to a Westerner, a presentation with logical bullet points may seem persuasive and effective, a Middle Eastern business person may find this approach too blunt. It is also advisable to default to a more formal writing style and spend extra time providing additional supportive information and context surrounding the request.
When interacting with business partners from or in the region, it is critical to know that communication with a single person is a representation of the whole. It is also important to remember that a person’s dignity, honor and reputation are paramount. In addition, honor and its opposite shame are most often viewed as a collective, pertaining to an entire family, group or organization. Thus, a business leader is not seen so much an independent person but rather, depending on the situation, as the face of the team, the business or even the entire company. Communication gaps or potential misunderstandings due to different underlying cultural communication norms can have a more far reaching effect than normal.
The Role of Relationships
Culture in this region is highly interpersonal. Trust and respect are two essential elements to establishing successful business relationships with partners in the Middle East. When conducting business, it is important to establish and maintain personal relationships. Before focusing on business take the time to find common ground, ask about families, or share insights; business partners may be offended if colleagues try to brush past what they consider “small talk.”
For global mobility leaders visiting the region, an invitation to share a meal with a colleague or visit their home represents a significant chance to further develop and deepen a personal relationship. To the extent possible, it is highly advisable to take advantage the opportunity. Businesspersons should feel free to admire the general décor and beauty of the space as it is yet another way to further a personal relationship. However, in some instances lavishing too much praise on anything in particular could lead the host to gift that item as a token of the relationship.
Because personal relationships play such a significant role in business, in this region, it is common to have business relationships with family and friends. Many employees in companies have a family connection and nepotism is not considered inappropriate or unacceptable. It is critical for global mobility leaders to treat everyone with a great deal of respect to avoid inadvertently damaging business ties that already exist.
The regional affinity for relational business also means it is unlikely agreements will be made with faceless corporations. In other words, a promise to a friend means more than a written contract with an unknown business partner. Business people in the region prefer to deal with one representative whom they can get to know personally over a period of time, not an array of different people. So in order to maximize opportunities for success, organizations and global mobility leaders should strive to maintain personnel continuity and avoid frequent changes of roles within the company.
Business Women in the Middle East
Female global mobility leaders working with colleagues in the Middle East, should be aware that culturally, men and women have different roles. The perceived differences between men and women are emphasized in all aspects of society. It is important to refrain from commenting on or making disparaging remarks on social norms that may not align with personal ideals. Female leaders should adjust their behavior to be respectful of the cultural norms and consider the specific circumstances when interacting with customers and suppliers in the region. to nuance behavior accordingly.
Middle Eastern men are generally happy to work with non-Middle Eastern businesswomen, and in some parts of the Arab world women have more freedoms than in others. Lebanon and the Maghreb, for instance, offer more opportunities for women in business than what is found elsewhere. Female global mobility leaders doing business in the Middle East are not expected to dress like women in the region. However, Western women visiting the region should dress modestly and avoid making too much direct contact with men during conversation.
The rich history, culture and people of the Middle East continue to offer new opportunities and challenges as the region expands its presence in the global economy. Understanding and ultimately adjusting to the predominant cultural values in the region can enable mobility leaders’ success, helping them to drive their objectives forward and improve their mobility programs’ performance.