While many business owners venture into Europe and North America, there are companies that want to explore other markets and try to do business in the Arab world, a region with a very diverse market.
You will need all the help that you can get if you want to explore doing business in the Arab world where practices and norms are very different from the U.S. or European perspective. The Arab region is culturally, religiously, ethnically and geographically diverse. Therefore, it is critical to understand the cultural and economic details of each country in order the find the available business opportunities where you company will fit in.
The Arab world consists of 22 states located in West Asia and North Africa.
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
You need to understand the business culture of each country, the proper business etiquette, negotiating practices, the details about hospitality, their calendar and other country-specific practices.
Here are some of the things you have to remember and do when doing business in the Arab world.
1. Understand proper timing
You have to understand that the workweek in the Middle East is different from the West. With Islam as the dominant religion, Friday is considered as the most holy day. On Friday, noontime is congregational prayer time. In many states in the Middle East, the workers’ weekend is on Friday and Saturday. But that is not true for all areas, so here’s a quick guide.
Friday and Saturday weekend schedule is observed in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, the weekend schedule is on Saturday and Sunday.
The Gregorian calendar is used in the Arab world except for Saudi Arabia, but they also follow the Islamic lunar calendar when it comes to observing their religious festivals. Two of the most important are Eid-al Fitr (end of the fast during Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha, which is the end of the Hajj or annual pilgrimage. These are movable feasts that follow the movements of the moon; therefore, it is difficult to determine when these two Islamic festivals will occur. Remember that the exact date to observe them also varies by country (due to the time difference).
Given these scenarios, it is essential to update your calendar and ensure that you will avoid planning business meetings or conferences around these times, especially during the month of Ramadan.
In some states, especially in Egypt and Jordan where there are Christian minorities, Christian festivals like Christmas are likewise observed, which can affect work schedules and business operations.
2. Schedule face to face communication
For people who want to explore the possibilities of doing business in the Arab world, you need to engage in face-to-face communication. Ensure that you avoid engaging in business by phone or email. For the Arabs, personal contact is very vital, because for most of them, there is only a very slight distinction between personal and business relationships, so personal meetings are critical. See to it that you also schedule personal meetings.
Generally, meetings should be booked at least a week in advance. See to it that you confirm the meeting by phone a few days before.
3. Respect their language
Modern Standard Arabic is the official language in most Arab states except in the United Arab Emirates where the majority of the business people are expatriates. They are very proud of their mother tongue so it is vital to at least learn a few Arabic greetings to make a good impression. It shows your counterparts that you are serious about conducting business with them and that you respect their own language. You can bring an interpreter with you if your business colleagues prefer to conduct the meeting in Arabic.
To introduce you to the language, here are some phrases you’d find useful for each occasion.
During the initial meeting, you can say As-salaam alaykum (meaning, Peace be upon you). You’ll hear your counterpart respond by saying Wa alaykum as-salaam (meaning, And peace be upon you too). Hello in Arabic is Marhaba, while Thank you is Shukran. When you say Keif al-haal? (How are you?), the response you’ll receive will be Al-hamdulillah (Thanks be to God). Saying please is different if you are requesting a male or a female person. You say Min fadlak to a male and Min fadlik to a female. Inshallah is an expression you can use when you and your Arab counterparts are talking about future actions or plans. It means God willing. You use Ma As-salama when you’re saying goodbye. It translates to go in peace.
Handshakes are also typically exchanged although it may take longer than what you’re used to. Do not withdraw your hand immediately. Rather, be polite and wait for your Arab colleague to release your hand. If you are meeting with an Arab businesswoman, wait for her to offer her hand as most of them are still very conservative and not likely to shake the hand of a male colleague. If you are a businesswoman dealing with an Arab counterpart, you should wait for him to offer his hand to exchange handshake.
Arabs typically conduct meetings formally, so expect to be addressed by Ms. or Mr. before your first name, but this varies from country to country.
It is important to have your business cards printed in English and Arabic. See to it that your company logo is on the right side of the card, as the language is read from right to left.
4. Win their trust by becoming their friend
Even with their increasing exposure to business practices outside the Arab world, many Arabs still consider that professional and personal lives are not distinct from one another. If you are a potential business partner, your Arab colleague initially looks at you as a friend.
It’s for this reason why Arabs favor face-to-face meetings. For them, it is important to build rapport through small talks about personal things before you can move on to the main purpose of the meeting. For the Arabs, it is essential to know you on a personal level before talking business.
Therefore, before you meet with your Arab clients or potential business partners, you should prepare answers to questions about your family and your health, your travel experiences and your home. You should likewise ask them the same questions. One thing to remember is to avoid asking specific questions about their female family members.
It is difficult to penetrate an industry or business in the Arab states. You need to have a senior contact person within an organization or company. If you do not have a contact, be sure to employ a contact-sponsor or an intermediary to introduce you to the person you should meet. This is a prevalent and accepted system in the Middle East, which is called wasta. If you already have an influential contact, you can have an easier time passing through the existing bureaucracy.
Borrowing and returning favors also exist. If your Arab counterpart requests a favor, it is going to be beneficial for you to have it fulfilled. You should never refuse a request outright. Even if you are not able to fulfil the favor, your efforts will be appreciated and remembered, which will be of benefit to you.
5. Be flexible with your schedule
In the Arab world, punctuality takes on a different meaning. If you are so used to being punctual, meeting with an Arab counterpart could be a revelation. You have to be quite flexible with your time as your Arab counterparts may show up 30 minutes late for your meeting. It is a normal occurrence. You’d be surprised to know that there were cases where they show up an hour, several hours or a day late. Rather than getting frustrated, it’s advisable that you just go with the flow, but do show respect as their guest and arrive on time for your meeting.
Agendas are not very important when meeting with Arabs. The structure of the meeting is more circular instead of linear, with the most senior among the Arabs present directing and leading the business discussion. The meeting typically starts with small talk that could last for about five minutes. Even if it is a private meeting, expect interruptions to happen. With the increased use of smartphones, Arabs typically check their phones often and communicate with other people during the course of your meeting. They are not being disrespectful. They are just part of the new technology-based culture.
See to it that you have multiple copies of your brochures, business plans or proposals during the meeting. You might not be meeting with the real decision makers so they will require you to give them copies of the materials you have presented.
6. Exercise patience
Arab businessmen are still very traditional and driving a hard bargain is their usual way of concluding business. However, the negotiation process is slower in this part of the world, so you should have plenty of patience. Expect to pass through bureaucratic red tape slowly. While some Arab countries such as the UAE boast innovative digital banking solutions, beware that the overall processing of paperwork will take time and if you do not have patience, you’ll be defeated. Negotiations and decisions are typically discussed with the entire executive team involved in the business, so be prepared to wait.
Another thing to remember that the concept of saving face, whether it’s theirs or yours, is very much alive in the Arab world. Avoid disagreeing with your Arab colleagues directly during meetings. Learn the art of subtlety to get them to your way of thinking by paraphrasing your disagreement. You should also understand that your counterparts would not disagree with you directly during your negotiation. Learn to read body language, which can give you indicators of how the negotiation is going. Follow up the meeting with an email or phone call, where your counterparts may be more candid with their thoughts and comments, so you know how to proceed to the next round of negotiations.
7. Observe their dress code
Remember that Arabs are still very traditional in many aspects, thus it is important to observe their dress code. Dress in a smart business suit, preferably in dark colors. The practice may vary depending on the nature of the business, the region and the country. Even if you are just traveling around, it is advisable to dress comfortably but sensibly and modestly. Shorts, T-shirts and short-sleeve polo shirts should be avoided.
Businesswomen should wear conservative clothes that cover most of their arms down to the elbows. Skirts should reach their ankles. It is best to wear dresses or shirts with rounded necklines to prevent showing the cleavage. See to it that your clothes are of good quality and fit you well.
Arabs will typically wear a thobe (long white robe) and a keffiyeh (red and white checkered headdress).
Arabs are very hospitable and you can expect to receive invitations, gifts and refreshments from them. If you are invited to a meal in a restaurant, be sure to return the invitation later.
The manner of doing business in the Arab world varies. For example, wasta is common in Saudi Arabia. Using the correct titles is very important in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Remember to use Sayed or Shiek for male counterparts and Sayeda or Sheikha for female individuals. Age normally equates to seniority in the UAE.
If you are doing business in Jordan and meeting with several people, it is customary to greet the first person on your right side. Age is also linked to seniority in Jordan. In this country, it is customary for guests to decline the first offer of refreshments. You can accept once your hosts have made the offer three times.
It is important to know an influential person when doing business in Egypt. He will act as the intermediary and even use Arabic to introduce your business’s key points. Egyptians also like to indulge in small talk before a meeting and the safest topics are Egypt’s cotton industry and their past and modern achievements, so better brush up on these topics long before your meeting. The business hours in Egypt depend on the season. During summer, the regular business hours are from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In winter, offices start work at 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. then they take a break and resume work from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. It is typical for most Egyptians not to work from Thursday until Saturday, even if the official weekend is Friday and Saturday.
Use French instead of Arabic if you want to do business in Morocco. Meetings should be scheduled far in advance. Confirmation of the meeting is required a few days before it commences.
Understand that the way things are done in the Arab world is very different from Western countries. Learning the culture of the Middle Eastern state you want to explore will help greatly in navigating the intricate and sometimes labyrinthine process of meeting your Arab counterparts, winning their trust and navigating their bureaucratic methods of processing paperwork and setting up a business.
Be confident when transacting business
Knowledge of cultural difference matter greatly when you are dealing with cultures that are the extreme opposite of what you are used to. The matter of communication is one hurdle that you can easily cross through translation. Dealing with your Arab counterparts is not easy, but Arabic translations services can help ensure that your message will get across accurately and in conformance with the preferences of your business colleagues, giving your confidence a big boost. Day Translations, Inc. works with subject matter experts who are native speakers of more than 100 languages and live in-country to make sure that they fully understand the linguistic and cultural requirements of the each particular client. We can easily connect you with a professional Arabic translator because we are open 24 hours a day, each day of the week, all throughout the year. You can contact us through 1-800-969-6853 or email us at Contact us whenever you need Arabic translation services. We offer a full suite of language services, so you can have interpreting services as well while you engage in meetings with your partners in the Middle East.
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