• Ten Things You Need To Know About Doing Business In The Middle East


    One of the beautiful surprises of Paris. The minaret of the Paris Mosque off the Rue Monge, in the fifth arrondissement, founded in 1926 to thank the 100,000 Muslim tirailleurs, who fought and died in the French army in World War 1.

    Following my article on the points to remember about the Muslim religion two weeks ago.

    Here is an article about some of the behavioural things visitors and business partners need to take into account.

    One thing you learn in cross-cultural training and facilitation is to be cautious about the statements you make about the Middle East. After all, you are dealing with business partners, colleagues and clients from a number of different countries, all with different peoples, traditions and customs. You are also dealing with individuals from different regions in those countries, who, once again, have their own variations on how to approach the business relationship. On top of that you have the differences between individuals according to how they have been educated, how much they have travelled or studied abroad and how familiar they are with what interculturalists sometimes call the US/UK business model.

    However, if you talk to colleagues in the Middle East they will point out a number of general features which you should bear in mind. Here are our top ten features. It is also part of what we teach on our Doing Business in the Middle East one-day training course.

    1 Relationship first

    Ultimately, your Middle-Eastern partner must like you and trust you. You may argue that this is the ideal scenario in all business relationships but on the whole in the US/UK model like and trust grows through successful business. In the Middle East like and trust is the foundation of successful business. This is why regular personal contact is vital and takes time. One of the rarely recognised costs in international business is management time. Working with overseas colleagues and partners demands greater attention to personal relationships (phone calls, emails, personal contact, hospitality and gift-giving than is normally the case in business relationships in UK or US. It is a below the line cost and is therefore often not factored in to business deals but you need to take account of it from the point of view of your executives on the ground.

    Building good relationships benefits from a local office with a people centred manager on the ground or a trusted local agent. Particularly, in large projects, such as construction, this becomes vital.

    2 You are who you know

    Many people in international business argue that this is the case anywhere in the world but in the Middle East it is particularly important. In many states, the Royal Family or the political elite is also involved in business and your or your agent’s contacts in the right places can help or hinder your business.

    Remember, however, that this cuts both ways. Your Middle Eastern colleagues will want to know that you have decision making authority on your own account or that you have the ‘ear’ of or a direct line to the decision maker on your side.

    3 Top down decision making

    You need to remember that in the Middle East hierarchy matters and that decisions will be taken by people at the top. However, this is always done after consultation with trusted associates. Hopefully, in time, that will include you. This has two implications. One is that local managers who take initiatives that are not sanctioned by head office may be considered unreliable and untrustworthy. The other is that your Middle Eastern colleagues may consider local initiatives to be the result of head office policy and that may not be the case. Consistency of policy and practice is important here, even in the face of what might appear to be inconsistency on the other side.

    4 Tolerance of timing

    In much of the Middle East timing is by personal priority rather than impersonal timetables.

    This means that appointments may not always start on time, may be interrupted and that things do not happen at the time you have agreed they will. This is a cause of immense frustration to many Western businesspeople who often consider it a sign of laziness, inefficiency or, at worst, rudeness. In some cases it may be but a more likely explanation is that something or someone got in the way. Frankly, the way to deal with this is to roll with the punches and not stand on ceremony. Your tolerance will be tacitly appreciated. If something, is really important however, it is up to you to phone or visit the person concerned and politely explain the situation at as high a level as you can reach. This will get the response you need.

    5 Oral beats email

    Many business colleagues we know here prefer to do business by email. And if they don’t get a response , they email again, and again. My Abu Dhabi colleagues, on the other hand, call me. ‘My friend,’ they say, out of the blue after six months, ‘Why haven’t you called me?’

    The lesson is obvious and it is a rule throughout the Mediterranean. If you’re going to send an important email, call them first to tell them. Then send it. If necessary, call up and check they’ve got it. Then call up to check they’ve responded. Remember what I said about management time? If you want a response, put in the effort.

    6 Always be positive

    Margaret Thatcher, former `British Prime minister, used to say,’ I don’t want my ministers to bring me problems. I want them to bring me solutions.’ (not her exact words). Same in the Middle East. There is a tendency to complain, often bitterly, at the frustrations of business life. However, it is really important to remain positive. And here is an important lesson I learned from a British colleague, dealing with the Middle East. If you want to make a complaint, always provide an escape route. You never blame someone personally. You blame outside factors. This will normally receive agreement and ensure co-operation in achieving a speedy solution.

    7 Don’t offend personal dignity

    This leads us on to concepts of personal dignity. It is important to show that you respect your business partner, their position and their family. This doesn’t necessarily mean formality. Your Middle Eastern business partner will most often be charming, friendly and informal, on first name terms. But they are acutely aware of their own position in their society, their family and in the social and political hierarchy. This means you should show respect to them in the presence of third parties and also not blame them or joke about them with third parties, whatever the level of informality in your own relationship.

    Where things can go very wrong is when you meet colleagues in Europe or the US. There they are away from their native habitat they can let their hair down and be much more relaxed – even regarding taking their wives with them to meetings and social occasions and ignoring prohibitions on alcohol and pork. However, back home these restrictions may come into force. Be sensitive to the difference in environment. Don’t automatically expect people to be the same back home as they are abroad.

    8 Be sensitive to religion and social norms

    Most parts of the Middle East do not insist that foreigners subject themselves to Islamic norms and customs but it is common sense when with devout Muslim colleagues to refrain from ordering pork, even if it is on the menu, or drinking alcohol in their presence. Dress codes for women are more modest in the Middle East and men have to be careful about enquiring about or wanting to greet wives. The wife of the colleague who you entertained to dinner in London may be kept behind the scenes when you visit the family home in Riyadh. Your wife or partner can go and say hello but you shouldn’t.

    In the same way, in Ramadan don’t consume food when everyone else is abstaining. Wait till you are back in your hotel or own environment. Middle Easterners in general are extremely forbearing of Europeans and Americans’ cultural differences but they are also very appreciative when show you know and care.

    9 Be prepared to listen

    The British and the Americans tend to be good at saying what they want and then why they want it. The Middle East tends to be better at explaining the context and then saying what they want. And this can take time. That’s why I say, ‘Be prepared to listen.’ The payoff is you are showing interest and building the relationship. If you have to interrupt and move on, do it politely, apologetically and explain why.

    10 Never refuse a favour.

    I’ve left this till last but it is really important. Sometimes your Middle East colleague will ask you a favour. For example, ‘I want my son to study in a British public school. Can you get him into Stowe?’ (Stowe is a well-known British public school. Richard Branson went there.)

    You may not know the head teacher, you may not even know about Stowe and you may not do favours for anybody, even your own family. But you must never say ‘No’ outright. To do so is like saying, ‘I do not wish to co-operate with you.’, and can have all sorts of negative implications for the business relationship. The correct answer is, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ You may not be able to do anything. Your business colleague may know or very soon realise you can’t do anything but the important thing is you have shown willingness.

    Enough said. The Middle East is a rewarding experience, financially, culturally and socially. Treat people with sensitivity and friendliness and they will do the same. That’s what we teach to support you in your Middle Eastern initiatives.

    Barry Tomalin facilitates the Middle East Association MEA & Intuition Languages Training Seminar: Building Successful Business Relations in the Middle East , which explains business principles and practices throughout the region and helps you apply the lessons to your markets. He also provides private consultation and training to companies investing in the Middle East. The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them’ also contains a chapter on the Middle East. See PUBLICATIONS.


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