Cross-Cultural Intelligence: Doing Business in the Middle East (Part 1)

The Middle Eastern market is one of the most in-demand of the moment – but the right business etiquette is vital is you want to make the right first (and lasting) impression on potential clients there. Here, Succeed presents Part 1 of an interview with etiquette and protocol consultant Jo Caruana that provides valuable insight into the nuances that work best in this dynamic business region.


First things first: the Middle East is incredible diverse and varies hugely from country to country – whether that’s related to religion, culture, food, ethnicity, geography or, crucially, business practices. This means that it’s absolutely vital to assess each individual country there, to ensure you’re up-to-date and savvy on the what’s expected (and not expected) before you get down to business.


“One of the first things you need to come to terms with when working in the Middle East, is that the days of the week run a little differently there than in the Western world,” explains Jo Caruana, the etiquette and protocol consultant behind Finesse Consulta.


“As a rule, weekends fall on Friday and Saturday (as opposed to Saturday and Sunday), which means your client may expect you to be available on Sundays, or may not be available to you on Fridays. This can sometimes pose schedule clashes – especially if you are unaware of this when going into the situation and don’t appear clued up. Having said that, there are some exceptions in the region (namely in Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia) where weekends do fall on Saturdays and Sundays. This kind of knowledge could easily give you the edge when it comes to making a great first impression on your potential client or partner.”


Next, you could enhance this first meeting further by making sure that your greeting is also on-point. “As Arabs are very proud of their language, it helps to learn some key phrases,” Jo continues. “In my opinion, the most useful include ‘As-salaam alaykum’ – which is the ideal first ‘hello’ and means ‘peace be upon you’, which they will likely counter with ‘Wa alaykum as-salaam’, which means ‘peace to you too’. Other helpful phrases include ‘Shukran’ (thank you), ‘Inshallah’ (God willing, which refers to your hope that something particular will happen in the future), and ‘Ma As-salama’ (goodbye).


“Knowing these basic language terms will highlight the effort you have made to connect with their culture, and with your potential partners or clients as people.”


Finally for this interview, Jo highlights important elements of meeting etiquette that could make all the difference to the way you are perceived in the Middle East – especially early on in the negotiation or familiarisation process.


“It’s the people-to-people contact that’s taken seriously in the Middle East,” Jo continues. “And the fact that things can be done face-to-face.


“That said, timeliness isn’t necessarily considered in the same way it is in parts of the West and Asia, and can be much more lax. It’s not unusual for Arab people to be up to half an hour late for a meeting, so it’s important to factor that time into your schedule so you don’t then need to cut your meeting short. Try to go with the flow and not get frustrated.


“Beyond that, you’ll probably also find that meeting structures are more laid back too – so there’s no need to bring the sense of formality that’s often prevails in meetings on this side of the world. Accept and embrace the more circular structure and the fact that you may well be interrupted for your counterpart to have a quick conversation on the side or to take a phone call. This is just how things work, and no offense should be taken.


“Last but not least, be prepared. You may find that the person you’re working with isn’t the decision maker, and that they will need to relay information upwards. To make this as seamless as possible, be at the ready to provide extra copies of your print outs or slides, and to make your presentation again if you need to. The lack of rigidity might seem exasperating at first, but will hopefully prove to be an important stepping stone in the process in the long term.”


Got any questions about business etiquette in the Middle East, or is there any tip you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments section below! We’ll have more tips from this fascinating region next month.


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Monique Chambers

Monique started succeed in 2018 and indulge in 2011. She has published two apps; Indulge Me GIFT and Indulge Me FOOD and volume 1 of The Artists Directory - Malta, as well as an audio book, Table 7. A PR and Marketing professional by trade with a Masters in Entrepreneurship, Monique's passion is to promote local talent and Malta in general.