Organisational Culture in a Foreign Country – Part 2

by | Jul 12, 2018 | Advice

Cultural differences between people in a company, or between the employees of two companies working together in a joint venture, can create difficulties in terms of communication, teamwork, motivation, or coordination, and the impact on performance can be significant.

Many stereotypes and myths surround the Middle East. Learning about business culture, business etiquette, meeting protocol and negotiation techniques before attempting to do business in the Middle East is essential. Through such knowledge, stereotypes are broken and barriers to communication reduced. Differing cultures can become respectful of differences and work together.

The following focus on aspects of business culture and etiquette in the region.

Timing

An easily overlooked detail is the working week in the Middle East. The holy day of Islam is Friday, congregational prayers are held at noon. Friday and Saturday is the weekend in most Middle Eastern countries with some exceptions.

 

All Middle Eastern countries use the Gregorian calendar, except Saudi Arabia. The lunar calendar of Islam influences religious festivals. The two main festivals are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr comes at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha at the end of the annual pilgrimage, also known as Hajj. Typically, these festivals last three days. As the calendar follows lunar rather than solar movements predicting exactly when the holidays will occur is difficult. Consequently, the dates will vary from country to country and from year to year. It is best not to plan a business trip around the times of these two festivals.

Ramadan is the holy month, Muslims will be fasting from dawn to dusk, and are forbidden from eating, drinking, and smoking. It is wise and respectful to avoid doing business or trying to organise meetings during Ramadan. The exact dates of Ramadan vary both year on year and from country to country and fasting will commence when the correct moon is sighted in each country, instead of an official starting date. It is polite not to eat, drink, and smoke in the company of Arabs during this period whilst in an Arab country. When you do, it should be done inside and away from the public eye.

Visiting and Working

Face to face communication is vital to professional life in the Arab world. Minimise the use of email or the telephone for doing business.

It’s about who you know when doing business, having an agent with “Wasta” (influence and connections) is key to getting things done. The maxim of, “It’s not what you know but who you know” is a widely exploited system in the Middle East, and it is not viewed as dishonourable or deceitful, but as part of the ordinary course of business. A system of borrowed and returned favours is also prevalent. When asked a favour by a business partner, at least attempt to fulfil it. Outright refusal is never a good policy. If it is not possible to accomplish effort and enthusiasm will be remembered and appreciated.

It is best not to organise a meeting too far into the future, and a couple of days before the meeting telephone and confirm.  Prior planning a preparation can be last-minute, and it will vary from country to country and business to business.

Greetings

The Arabic language is derived from the Classical Arabic used in the Holy Quran and Arabs are justifiably proud of their language.

It is always polite to learn at least some basic phrases in the language of the country being visited, the Middle East is no exception and learning some simple Arabic greetings to establish a friendly connection will always be welcomed.

There is an assumption that foreigners will not bother to learn any Arabic before arriving, however, a little knowledge will go a long way. The following is a short list of useful phrases:

 

A Handshake is the standard form of physical greeting; however, they will last longer than what is custom in the west. It is best to wait for the other person to withdraw their hand first. As a male greeting an Arab businesswoman, wait until she extends her hand as conservative women may choose not to shake hands with men. If you are a businesswoman meeting Arab businessmen, wait for them to initiate the handshake.

The form of address to an individual varies from country to country and even business to business if uncertain remaining formal is the best policy. The host is likely to address you as Mr or Ms then your first name.

Business cards are an essential tool in the Arab world, having them printed in both Arabic and English will be very helpful. Arabic is read from right to left, by conditioning, the eyes of an Arab are drawn to the right side as the start point of writing, so place your company logo accordingly on the business card.

Trust in the Business World

For Arabs personal and professional life is intimately entwined; a business partner is also considered as a friend.

A face to face meeting is vital in building trust. Engaging in small talk at a personal level before the agenda of the meeting is considered is normal. There will be a wish to comprehend on an individual, at a friendly level, before conferring in business terms.

Wherever possible, talk rather than write. Feedback is instant, and messages can be adjusted according to reactions. It is also more human and understanding, as well as helping to overcome prejudices. Verbal criticism is more constructive than written reproof.

The importance of small talk cannot be overstated. Be prepared to discuss travel, home, experiences of the country being visited, health, and family. Be ready to entertain with a few stories, and to ask all the questions back to your acquaintance. It is normal and expected to ask after the health of the family, and even general questions about children, however, avoid enquiring in too much detail about female family members, this could cause offence to the more conservative.

Meetings

The concept of punctuality can be very different, do not be surprised if your counterpart is late. In the Middle East time passes more sedately, and it is best to be relaxed about this than to get frustrated. However, always arrive on time to show respect to your host.

Meetings are far less rigidly structured as opposed to the more strict Western business meeting format. They will probably lack an agenda. It is customary to start with small talk, later the point of the meeting will be raised and discussed, and perhaps the most senior in the meeting will lead and direct the discussion.

Interruptions during meetings are commonplace, even during what may feel be a private meeting. The rapid spread of smartphones in the Middle East has been compounded this factor. Arabs are not averse to regularly checking their smartphones and communicating with them, even during face to face. Be prepared for this and do not take offence. It is not seen as a sign of disrespect, but purely part of today’s technology-fuelled society.

Be sure to provide several copies of printed information, such as business plans, or brochures being introduced in the meeting. There is always the possibility that whom you are meeting is not the decision-maker and the content of the meeting and materials will be relayed upwards.

Negotiations

Arab societies were and remain traditional trading societies, so expect a Middle Eastern businessman to drive a hard bargain.

Hard negotiation does not necessarily mean fast-paced negotiation, patience is required, do not try to force a deal by time pressure, this strategy will fail. Bureaucracy is prevalent in every Middle Eastern country, and persistence in negotiation will be required in this aspect as well.

Although the culture has evolved from tribal groups, middle eastern societies still relate to their tribal origins. This tribal or associative mentality influences negotiations as the lead negotiator will probably discuss the decision with the entire team before confirming an agreement, so again, adding to the time budget and patience required for negotiations.

Use cultural awareness to avoid causing a loss of face, Arabs find it shameful to lose face. This is more than protecting personal integrity; but also preserving the honour of the group, whether that be a family, tribe, company or country.

Saving face is cultural intelligence that will preserve the honour of the group, not just individual integrity. Failure to understand this can cause a fissure in a relationship, although some individuals may have different viewpoints:

  • Face can be given and taken away. Spend time on relationship-building.
  • Read Between the Lines. Many cultures find it very difficult to say no as this can cause a loss of face. Listen carefully; “possibly”, or “we will let you know” or “maybe” are euphemisms for No!
  • Do not Quibble. Discreetly suggest items that could be revised. This will save face.
  • Never Lose your Temper or Become Frustrated. Shouting, being overly bureaucratic, or criticising a mistake, will cause a loss of face, for all concerned. Be polite and calm instead.
  • Do not Interrupt. In Iraq, for example, there is a strict hierarchy in meetings of who speaks. Due to the hierarchical nature of Iraqi culture, the leader of an Iraqi team does most of the talking for his company or department. Do not interrupt and contradict a speaker; this would be the cause of a loss of face, as well as embarrassing for others present. A relationship could be damaged. Typically, subordinates are there to corroborate information or to provide technical advice and counsel to the most senior Iraqi.
  • Be Gracious at Meals. The culture of hospitality means Iraqis like to invite people to their homes. If you push food away without trying it, your host will lose face. Great hospitality to a visitor gives face, so show appreciation.
  • Criticize with Care. Only ever criticise in private, but reinforce criticism with positive. Seek to work together to solve differences.
  • Moderate Superior Knowledge. Do not cause a loss of face by openly demonstrating a more significant subject matter expertise. Be discreet in revealing this fact, and allow them to have their say.
  • Make Concessions in Negotiations. Being intransigent on a point will cause the loss of face. Be prepared to make a concession to save face.
  • Allow a White Lie. When observing simple body language and listening to tone, it is usually possible to tell when the speaker is not accurate. Do not openly challenge; merely move on.

It can be difficult to ascertain if alignment has been reached or not, follow up a meeting with an email or phone call; post-meeting it can provide a way for Arabs to express opinions candidly.

In the Arab context, body language is essential. Be alert to signs of positive and negative reactions through body language; this may well be a better indicator of opinion than what is suggested in speech.

Remember that pointing and the thumbs up sign are considered rude, as can crossing legs when sitting and displaying the sole of shoes or feet.

Be aware of the differences in personal space in the Arab world. Arabs will stand or sit much closer to, be more tactile, and even take your hand when leading you somewhere.

Dress Code

A smart dark coloured business suit is recommended, much like anywhere else in the world, casual dress is suitable, depending on the country, region, and business. Modesty in dress applies to men as well as women in most Arab societies, avoid wearing shorts and short sleeved shirts or t-shirts.

Businesswomen visiting the Middle East should always dress conservatively, covering arms to the elbow, legs to the ankles, and avoiding displaying cleavage. Depending on the country the advised dress code for women will vary.

Outward appearance as evidence of social status is of importance to Arabs; quality clothes reflect a comfortable or influential position in society. Pay attention to your standard of dress in order to make a good impression.

It is not unusual for Arabs to wear traditional dress in the workplace. Typically, this consists of a long white robe known as a “thobe” and often also a red and white checked headdress called a “keffiyeh”. Style and colours will vary from country to country, region to region, and even tribe to tribe. Traditionally dressed women wear a black robe called an “abaya” and a headscarf. It is not advisable for a westerner to don the traditional dress as it could offend Arabs and their pride in continuing heritage and tradition. 

Hospitality

Arab culture is bound up with the honour, respect for family, and hospitality. Be prepared to be given refreshments, gifts, and invitations, this is very much a part of the culture and completely normal.

During a meeting tea, coffee, juice, water, biscuits, for example, will be offered. Be gracious and accept this hospitality.

If invited to a restaurant for a meal, always return the invitation. Usually, the person inviting pays the bill. If the bill is to be split, one person should pay publicly, and accounting and reimbursement carried out in private, not at the table.

Being invited to dinner at your host’s home is an honour and an opportunity to consolidate friendship for a healthy business partnership, it is also a fascinating cultural experience. Bear in mind the following for an auspicious social occasion:

  • Men and women may dine separately. Being invited to dinner does not necessarily include a spouse or significant other.
  • Be punctuality as a sign of respect to the host. Typically, a lot of small-talk and socialising will take place before food is actually served.
  • Take a small gift as a token of appreciation for the host but do not take alcohol as taking alcohol into an Islamic home will cause great offence.
  • Follow the host’s instructions, enter a room when indicated, and only sit when requested. Be aware that it is customary for the oldest person to be first to enter a room or sit.
  • Be prepared to sit on the floor when dining, occasionally shifting position for comfort is quite reasonable. In general, follow the lead of others in terms of how an where to sit.
  • As a topic of conversation, do not discuss business unless the host raises the subject, avoid religion and politics (especially Israel).
  • Typically, food is served in the middle of the floor or table, for everyone to serve themselves from the common dishes. As a guest, it is polite to accept what is offered. However, do not help yourself until you have been told to. Usually, the oldest person in the room will eat first.
  • It is possible that there may not be cutlery. A piece of bread is used to retrieve food from the common dish and then to consume both the food and bread together.
  • Do not use the left hand as the left hand is considered unclean in Muslim societies. However, as a foreigner, if it is difficult to tear bread with one hand, use both hands and the incompetence will be overlooked. Additionally, remember to avoid handing objects or business cards to Arabs using your left hand.
  • Always compliment the food and the house, avoid enthusiastically praising individual objects as custom will force the host to present them to you as a gift.

It is worth noting that unlike the west, work culture in the Middle East would not usually involve going out for drinks.

Be prepared to bestow hospitality and generosity upon an Arab whether in the Middle East or to visit the home country; they will expect to be treated similarly. To be the complete host means to give the utmost that you have to offer, regardless of means, such as providing and paying for all food, drink, and transportation even guiding tours of a hometown. The best way to impress Arabs is in the realm of hospitality, treat them to the experience of your generosity.

Religious Considerations

It is an obligation of the faith to pray five times a day, and prayers are announced by the call to prayer sounding from local mosques. Prayers are as follows:

  1. Al-Fajr – Dawn, before sunrise;
  2. Al-Zuhr – Midday, after the sun has reached its highest point in the sky;
  3. Al-‘Asr – Late afternoon;
  4. Al-Maghrib – Just after sunset;
  5. Al-‘Isha – Between sunset and midnight.

Muslims will pray at home or in the office, in separate prayer rooms for men and women. When planning a meeting take prayer times into consideration.

It is forbidden for Muslims to consume both pork or alcohol, alcohol can be found in many Arab countries at hotel bars but is illegal in others, it is difficult to find pork in most Middle Eastern countries.

Specific Guidelines

Saudi Arabia

  • It is vital to engage an agent with “wasta” who can lead you to the right partnerships for your business plan. However, once in place, it is complicated to change to another.
  • Coffee is often served near the end of a meeting to signal the end of the proceedings; sometimes incense will also be lit.
  • The House of Saud and Islamic law is key to understanding a Saudi’s mentality. Thinking is collective, orientated around the family and tribe, with a strong sense of fatalism due to the divine will is prevalent.
  • Professional Saudi women are becoming more common. However, they remain a rarity. The public domain is a male enclave, and women are subject to many restrictions by law.
  • It is mandatory for a businesswomen travelling to Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya which covering the neck, and the ankles has long sleeves that also hide the wrists. It is prudent to wear a headscarf, in case of an encounter with the religious police.

United Arab Emirates

  • Status is of high importance, correct titles of either “Sheikh” or “Sayed” for a male and, “Sheikha” or “Sayeda” for a female should be applied.
  • Age is directly linked to seniority, and it is respectful to stand when an elder enters the room, always greet the oldest person in the room first, wait for the most elderly person to start eating before also doing so.
  • Many companies in the UAE conduct business entirely on Western terms due to the high level of Expat residents, having no preconceptions is essential, each firm will merge local and international values.
  • A businessman or woman can mostly expect to dress as they would elsewhere in the world.

Jordan

  • In a group, always start by greeting the first person on to the right and work around to the last person on the left.
  • Age is linked to seniority, and the wishes and opinions of an elder are adhered to. Often, the oldest person in the room will lead a meeting, and it is recommended that direct eye contact is made.
  • It is not usual for gifts to be exchanged at business meetings.
  • If you are offered refreshments during or after the meeting, it is polite to decline at first and to accept after the offer has been made three times.
  • If invited to a Jordanian home, it is polite to bring a small gift. No gift should be too ostentatious or expensive as to be construed as a bribe.

Iraq

  • Iraqi business culture is hierarchical, based on age and position, deferring all decision making to the highest-level of the business.
  • Women rarely hold managerial positions and their input is generally ignored.
  • Losing patience is likely to make Iraqis hesitant of further negotiations. Express any reluctance or disapproval calmly, with tact or in a one-on-one setting.
  • In Iraq, people prefer to agree and adhere to contracts on the basis of trust. Iraqis generally keep word-of-mouth promises.
  • An Iraqi’s preoccupation with appearances and politeness automatically requires that they answer ‘yes’, whether it is true or not. In the Arab world, a flat ‘no’ indicates that you want to end the relationship and causes people to lose face.
  • A natural response to many subjects is ‘Inshallah’ which means “If God will/allows it to happen”. Inshallah can be used to say yes without making any promises. It infers “I will try my best, but in the end, it is up to God to make it happen”. 
  • Giving gifts is not necessary but appreciated. However, giving expensive gifts can be misinterpreted as bribery.

Egypt

  • A local agent is the essential route to good contacts and providing pace to operations. A local Arabic speaker that can present the main business points in Arabic is a time-saving strategy that Egyptians will appreciate.
  • Always discuss Egyptian achievements in small-talk, both ancient and modern, also the cotton industry which is Egypt’s most famous export.
  • Business hours vary between summer and winter. In summer they are usually 08:00 until 14:00, and in winter 09:00 until 13:00 and then 17:00 until 19:00.
  • Many people will not work on Thursday, despite the weekend officially starting on Friday.
  • When eating with an Egyptian, do not eat all the food on the plate, to leave a small amount will indicate having eaten sufficiently, a clean plate suggests more food is needed. It is considered an insult to add salt to food in front of an Egyptian.

Morocco

  • There is a French influence in Morocco, and French business practices abound, including the primary language of business as French.
  • Organise a meeting as far in advance as possible and confirm it a few days beforehand.
  • Taboo subjects of discussion are the royal family, politics in the Western Sahara and Algeria, and drugs.
  • The serving of mint tea is a symbol of hospitality, so be prepared to accept this.
  • In Moroccan society the family unit is the most important, nepotism is considered positive and of supporting the family.

In Summary

Arabic is the mother tongue, followed by English, then French, and Hindi. Official documents, forms, laws and decrees are written in Arabic. Therefore, it is useful to have a working knowledge or a member of the team with Arabic language skills.

Awareness of the five pillars of Islam is an essential first step in understanding the religion.

It is recommended during a visit to the Middle East to be discreet and to conform to local laws to avoid any complications.

Middle Eastern countries are increasingly cosmopolitan, and it is not unusual to see all types of clothing styles. Nonetheless, it is advisable to dress modestly, especially women.

Knowing the business etiquette of Arab countries is crucial. Meetings should be booked well in advance, and as a sign of respect avoid prayer times; morning meetings are the preference. Business can occur in offices, but it can also be informal and take place in restaurants or cafés. Meetings are rarely private, and interruptions can often happen. Coffee or tea offered before the start of a meeting is recommended. Punctuality is essential and considered a sign of respect.

Personal relationships are at the centre of doing business in the Middle East. Face-to-face business dialogue is encouraged and preferred to phone or emails which impersonal.

Bridging the cultural divide is based on understanding the perspectives of other culture. It is not about what is right or wrong but respect for others’ beliefs and way of life. Be aware and respectful of the differences that will exist.

Barry ET Harris MBE is a consultant for Proelium Law LLP.  He is also a British Army veteran who combines operational experience with extensive commercial consulting, executive, and management expertise gained in complex environments and high-risk jurisdictions worldwide.

 

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