Cross-Cultural Intelligence: Doing Business in the Middle East (Part 2)

Last month, we spoke to etiquette and protocol consultant Jo Caruana about how best to do business in the Middle East, and discovered there was a lot to learn. This month, we’re delving deeper into the topic, with tips to ensure you make a great impression when launching your business into this nuanced – but hugely exciting – market.


There is no doubt about it: the Middle East is one of the most challenging markets to do business, especially if you come from outside it. But, as we discovered last month, there are things you can do to give yourself the edge. In our last article, we spoke about the need to understand differences in time culture, greetings, meeting etiquette, and the importance of being prepared.


“That was a great start,” explain Jo Caruana, who, in her role at Finesse Consulta, often helps clients to develop an understanding of cross-cultural etiquette. “But there are other things you can do too – all of which will help you to make that vital good first impression with potential clients and partners.”


First up, Jo highlights the importance of hospitality in the Middle East. “Hospitality – and how you are welcomed – is an integral part of life in the Middle East, and your host will probably want to make you feel very at home. This could mean you will be given gifts, shown around, and invited to the family home – they will love to spoil you. It is important to accept an invitation to a social gathering if it is extended to you as turning it down could be seen as a slight.


“Just bear in mind that some regional intricacies do exists. For instance, do not assume that – if you are invited to dinner – your spouse can join too, as men and women often dine separately here, and other arrangements may be made for him/her. If you are invited somewhere, it is nice to take a gift – just remember that alcohol can cause offense in the Middle East, so it should be avoided; chocolates or something for the home is a better bet.”


Dining in the Middle East also has its own distinctions. “Food may well be served on the floor, as it is customary to sit on the ground around a central selection,” Jo explains. “Much like in some Western cultures, it’s best to wait to be asked to start, as one of the elders will probably be the first to begin eating – elders command great respect in Middle Eastern cultures. If cutlery isn’t presented, use your right hand to eat (as the left hand is considered unclean), and mop your food up with your bread.


“Don’t be tempted to bring business up as a topic over dinner but feel free to take on the subject if your host does so. I recommend avoiding topics like politics and religion, and instead sharing experiences from home and taking the opportunity to get to know your host in a more relaxed atmosphere.”


Finally, remember that religion often plays a central role in the Middle East, and that many Muslims pray five times a day. “Religion affects many aspects of life here, including laws, education, food, clothes and daily routines, and it is important to respect that when doing business with an organisation or family in this region. You will find that you have to consider this when making plans or taking decisions,” Jo adds.


Additional tips:

  • While it may seem unusual in today’s Western world, gender roles are more clearly defined in the Middle East and must be respected. As a man, if you are introduced to a woman, it is not recommended to extend your hand for a handshake but to wait for the lady to take this initiative. If she does not, then you should not extend yours.
  • If you are travelling to the Middle East to do business, avoid Ramadan, as business activity tends to be reduced during this time to allow for fasting.
  • Accept that business and personal lives flow much more freely in the Middle East, so business and pleasure often mix. Friendship and trust play very central roles as to whether people will want to do business with you.


Is there anything we’ve missed when it comes to going business in the Middle East, or do you have a question for Jo? Please let us know in the comments section below!


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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.