• Why The Middle East is Special

    MANAGEMENT BRIEF

    I was so impressed by the recent HAJ exhibition in the Reading room of the British Museum in London. Not just by the exhibits, which told the story of the HAJ, the pilgrimage to Mecca, its history and what pilgrims do today, but by the visitors.

    The exhibition was full of mothers in hijabs with babies in pushchairs and fathers with children rushing around between the exhibits and old Pakistani scholars reading closely and with reverence every word of the many sacred texts on display. It’s not what you see in other exhibitions, for example, the current Picasso exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery.

    The experience brought home to me the extraordinary communal experience that Islam provides and brings all the Middle Eastern cultures together, whatever their experience and degree of devotion. Islam is a defining feature of all Middle Eastern cultures, despite differences in religion, persuasion and degrees of secularity. Foreigners doing business in the region have to come to terms with it in a way that they don’t have to in dealing with Christian, Hindu or Buddhist cultures.

    Although not the only, or even the biggest Muslim countries in the world (that honour belongs to Indonesia) all Middle Eastern Muslim countries share a common heritage – Islam. Islam affects attitudes to business all over the region and it is the first thing that people hoping to do business there need to understand.

    The key difference seems to be that what is seen as private in most countries is seen as public in Muslim countries. Therefore you cannot not take account of it. For example, at the very least, It is common politeness to avoid alcohol or ordering pork in front of Muslim guests, or at least check first.

    It is important to recognise that for devout Muslims, religion is first and foremost in their lives. Therefore following the Five Pillars of Islam is important and you need to take account of it, even if you don’t follow it.

    The Five Pillars are: -

    • Belief in Allah as God and Mohammed (Peace and Blessings be upon him) as his prophet. (Jesus Christ, by the way, is a prophet in the Muslim religion but is not considered divine, nor is Mohammed).

    • Prayer – officially five times a day. In Saudi, for example, shops will close for a short time at prayer time when it occurs during opening hours. Friday is the time people go to the Mosque and the weekend is Friday and Saturday. Sunday is often a working day, which throws the time clock of most outsiders for a while. More and more offices have set up prayer rooms with a sign on the wall showing the direction of Mecca (the direction in which Muslims pray) and a prayer mat or two to kneel on.

    • Alms: this doesn’t affect the foreign business person but will affect the local business partner.

    • Ramadan: this is the fasting period once a year for a month when a devout Muslim will eat and drink nothing between dawn and dusk. The start and end of Ramadan is determined by the phases of the moon and therefore advances by two weeks or so every year (in 2012 it will be in August). It stands to reason that, certainly in the first week as hunger bites and the stomach contracts there may be a knock-on effect on mood and on energy levels. But there is another effect as well. Shops do extremely well in the Middle East during Ramadan because when night falls people binge. More food is sold in Ramadan than any other part of the year. This may also mean that people stay up late and that too can affect work. All Muslims who stay the course of fasting in Ramadan testify to its detoxicating effects and its effects on discipline and on fitness but it can be a hard slog, especially the first and last weeks. You can help if you have evening work or offer evening training by delaying by it half an hour to allow fasters to grab a bite to eat and something to drink before starting.

    • Haj: this is the highlight of many people’s lives. Part of being a good Muslim is that once in your life (more, if possible) you will make the journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to worship at the Ka’aba. The journey normally takes about seven days and whole families go if they have the money. One of my friends, an Egyptian, hires an apartment in Mecca overlooking the Ka’aba and takes his whole family there for a month every year. To do the Haj is to be called a Hajji or Hajja or El Haj and is worthy of great respect. If you recognise that one of your employees has been on the Haj and pay tribute to it will be enormously motivating for them.

    Many people say, ‘Hang on. People’s religion is their business. It’s private. It has no business in the workplace.’ That’s true to a degree but in some ways the Muslim religion is very public. It permeates both private and public life. It affects the availability of people, how the working week is organised, when shops open and close, how the law is administered, how people dress and what they eat and how people relate to each other. Being aware of this and being sensitive to it is not just good human relations. It’s also good business.

    The Middle East is all about building relationships. As one Middle Eastern colleague said, ‘Build the relationship and the business will follow, as day follows night.’ Showing an interest in Islam and in the lives of Muslims is not seen as intrusive in the way showing interest in other employees religions might be regarded. It is an integral part of many people’s lives and your sensitivity to it will be rewarded by increased motivation and commitment.

    That’s why I was so impressed by the visitors to the Haj exhibition in the British Museum. It showed exactly that commitment and sense of common heritage that If you can tap into it will create goodwill. And as we know, goodwill is good business.

    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. The next one day programme is on 7 June 2012.

    Intuition Languages and the MEA also provide private consultancy and training to members either at the MEA or at their location.

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