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Top Tips for Navigating Middle Eastern Culture

Matthew MacLachlan

10 Dec 2015

Is your organisation doing business in the Middle East?  Are you thinking about travelling to a popular holiday destination in the region?  Whether for work or leisure, it is important to have a basic understanding of Middle Eastern culture if you wish to make the right impact and avoid making any cultural faux pas.

Unfortunately, when the Middle East makes the news in most of the rest of the world, it is generally negative newsMiddle_east_Overview. But as more people start to think seriously about the Middle East, they realise that there must be more to the region than whatever negative message popular media is likely to be portraying.  And, once they think about it, they may ask why do so many people work and live successfully from Beirut to Bahrain, Cairo to Qatar, or Amman to Oman?

The Middle East is an extraordinarily diverse part of the world.  It would be foolish to assume that one Middle East country is like any other, just as it would be equally foolish to assume that European countries are all the same.  However, there are some common characteristics and core values that are important for all visitors to the region to understand.

Diversity

People travelling to the Gulf Countries, particularly those going to the UAE or Qatar, will notice that most people are not Emirati or Qatari, but rather a mix of humanity from all over the world.

Equally, anyone working in the remaining Gulf Countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia will notice that many workers are foreign, even if there are more country nationals generally out and about in daily life.

People travelling to the Levantine countries (Lebanon, Jordan or historically Syria) as well as Egypt will be much more likely to work and interact predominately with people who are nationals of these countries.

However, they are also diverse people, absorbing the rich variety of religious practices and ethnic backgrounds of different civilisations who have had an impact in the region, sometimes for centuries.

Diversity in the workplace in the Middle East includes not only religion, ethnicity and in the case of the Gulf Countries, the presence of a wide variety of guest workers.

Diversity in the Middle East also means very different approaches to business due to a number of concrete factors, including generational, level of tradition, and how much the West has influenced their way of conducting business.

 

 

In the Gulf, learn a little about the countries and cultures of the people you are likely to be working with, not just the host country nationals

Priorities at Work

No matter how traditional, modern, or Western-appearing your Middle East counterpart may seem, it is important to consider core work values that remain integral to the Middle East.

Face first.  Although many people associate the concept of face with Asia, face is very important throughout the Middle East as well.  Your Middle East counterparts, first and foremost, will expect to be treated with dignity, respect, and ideally to enhance their reputation by working with you.  They will also be motivated to avoid shame (where someone else knows they did something wrong) and may be reluctant to accept blame.

Do not directly cause anyone to feel they have lost face.  It is better to hint about a problem or deliver a message that can be read between the lines rather than present a direct challenge.

Relationships Matter

Although Middle East businesses may understand the way business is done in the West (and indeed throughout the world), it doesn’t mean that they are comfortable emulating a ‘time is money’ model or to ignore the value of establishing a good working relationship.  Business relationships must be nurtured, both organisationally and person to person.

Do not rush business in the Middle East before a good working relationship has been established.  Ideally, this is done face to face whenever possible and should never be expected if you are only working remotely.

 

Develop Trust

Although visitors to the Middle East will always be outsiders, trust can be earned through the consistency of behaviour.  It is also important to follow up on what has been said, no matter how insignificant.

Be careful not to use ‘throwaway’ comments as they are likely to be remembered, often at times when you wish they weren’t

Expect to Do Things Differently

In general, people in the Middle East will invest in the relationship and building trust at the beginning and then decide whether they want to work with you.  Westerners generally think about the benefits that can be gained by working with the Middle East and consider a good relationship to be a bonus, but not as important as the bottom line.

Westerners are generally very task focussed and place a premium on planning.  People from the Middle East spend a lot of time getting to know you; they also juggle and reprioritise their business as and when it’s required, often instinctively.

Be flexible, tolerant, and most of all, be patient.

Priorities in Life: Faith, Family, Work

Never underestimate the importance of religion in the Middle East.  Whether working with someone who is devout or someone who appears to have a passing interest in their faith, most people regard religion as a moral code, directing them to a complete way of life.  Never challenge one’s faith or ask someone to prioritise your business over a religious belief or practice.

Develop your repertoire of small talk.  Show an interest in Middle East culture; these can include a wide range of topics from sport to cuisine.

Family is the bedrock of the Middle East.  It will take priority over business, even if that means you may be inconvenienced on occasion.  People in the Middle East understand if a family emergency means that business will wait, at least until the family matter is under control.

Visitors to the Middle East who show compassion about family matters will almost certainly be respected.  Keep in mind that, in the Middle East, family means the extended family and may also include other families who belong to a group or tribe.

Work is important, but not as important as faith and family.  For many Westerners, priorities are reversed, especially for people who are still climbing the corporate ladder.

Find common ground

Although many Westerners may not be religious, showing a genuine interest in the importance of a religious practice can gain favour.  Enquiring in general terms about someone’s family in the Middle East shows good values and will be rewarded.  Be aware when work is likely to be a priority for your Middle East counterparts and when it may not be.

Crossing cultures is always a challenge.  Crossing cultures in the Middle East, with its diversity, takes a lifetime to master.  Developing cultural awareness about the Middle East is an ongoing process that takes patience, but can also reap rich rewards.

The Middle East is an extraordinarily diverse part of the world. The more you learn about middle eastern culture the more you will enjoy your time there