Business culture in the Arab Middle East is conducted in a fundamentally different way to that of western business. There is often no demarcation between personal and business life, timetables are frequently considered a guide rather than a master and deals rely much more on relationships, connections and trust than bits of paper. The result is that business relies on the honour of the individual and the spoken word carries more importance than the written contract.
The system which interconnects family and personal relationships is known as ‘wasta’, and it is important to abide by it and realise it can provide short cuts to making business progress more quickly. Spending time building the right contacts and building a bank of favours can pay huge dividends.
Greetings between Arabs is based on Islamic exchange with the declaration ‘Asalamu alaykum’ – peace be with you, being the opening dialogue with the response being ‘wa alaykum salam’ – and peace be with you. Though westerners are not expected to use these greeting many do and it is appreciated. The handshakes that follow verbal greeting are long and it is important to wait for the other person to withdraw his hand. Let the other party judge the timing. In business it is common to use first names at nearly all occasions
For the westerner one of the biggest frustrations in business can be meetings. When first developing a new contact the purpose of meetings is not to negotiate or agree something. It is a medium for getting to know each other. And even when things progress to discussing business subjects meetings will not always run to an agenda. This can be frustrating as timetables overrun, but the temptation to clock watch must be resisted. Demonstrations of impatience are an insult.
Day to day etiquette is an area in which Western executives often fall down by failing to observe courtesies that often offend in the extreme. For example, directing the sole of the shoe towards someone even inadvertently can be viewed as a serious insult. The underneath of the shoe is considered unclean and revealing it toward someone even when doing something as innocuous as crossing legs when sitting down will offend.
Observation of Muslim religious practice varies from country to country. The nations of the UAE generally have a more liberal approach, but some, such as Saudi Arabia, have religious doctrine built into statutory law. It is best to research specific countries before a visit, and background on specific companies to establish whether they are Sharia law compliant. If they are it is important to take advice to ensure that religious rules are adhered to.
The role of women in business is dependent upon the degree of religious observation. The UAE is more relaxed than most other areas.
Business structure and management style is dependent on who owns the company. Those companies with their roots in the West will have recognisable flat management structures, but indigenous organizations are likely to be family owned with family members responsible for the daily running. Management structure will be hierarchy based with decisions being made at the top. But even the most junior manager may be well connected to a relative who is key to doing business, so it is important to show due consideration to managers at all levels.
Building business relationships in Arab cultures based on giving and acquiring respect will take time, and once established requires nurturing. This may be a time consuming process but it is necessary to do business successfully in Arab countries.