Westerners considering doing business with people of the Middle East and North African (MENA) markets would do well to learn about business best practices and customs that would help them make a good impression. The following six points will guide you on how to do business in the Middle East – a challenging and fascinating part of the world.
1. Middle East is as Culturally Diverse as Europe
When a Westerner thinks of the Middle East, they invariably think of sand, oil and camels. There’s much more to the region than sand, oil and camels, however. This culturally diverse region spans from Morocco to Yemen and is made up of about 20 countries, each of which has its own culture background and history. The region is populated by about 357 million people, or 6% of the global population.
The MENA is an economically diverse region that encompasses the oil-rich countries of the Gulf and resource-scarce economies such as Morocco, Yemen and Egypt. How you will do business-wise in the MENA region depends greatly on what product or service you are selling and your target market.
2. Invest in a Professional Guide
Before venturing into the MENA region to do business, it is vital to recognize the considerable differences between business cultures of the West and Middle East. Using western business practices in the Middle East will not serve you very well in Morocco, Qatar or Egypt, no matter how well they worked for you in the West.
3. Get to Know your Host
Though Middle Eastern countries share a common culture and history, there are several stark differences in their business approach and social outlook that you should take into account. Do not fall into the trap of treating all Arabs alike as this smacks of arrogance, a quality Middle Eastern businesspeople dislike.
If confused as to what to do, err on the side of caution and take a cue from what the locals do. It would be smart to hire an in-person interpreter and guide to help you learn business protocol. You may also check with the local chambers of commerce or a local law firm for pointers on how to conduct business in the Middle East.
4. Networking Matters
Who you know in the MENA region will make or break your business deals in this part of the world more than any other. If you have people working with you in the region, you will find that they will often bend the normal rules of business a bit to accommodate you. Make an effort to network with people in the region so that the doors of opportunity open to you.
5. Friendly Conversation Helps
Arabs are keen on doing business with people they know and like. More than just a courtesy, the quality of your small talk signals to your fellow Arab businessmen that you’d make a good business partner. Be open and enthusiastic about engaging in conversation and be ready to tell a few stories in order to break the ice.
6. Face-to-face Meetings Are Preferred
The second best option to communicating with your Arab business counterpart if you cannot meet him in person is to make a phone call. Your e-mails and written communications will go ignored unless you follow up by phone. In the MENA region, anything written is considered less personal and important. In certain MENA countries, like Saudi Arabia, don’t even negotiate key business matters over the phone at all. As a Westerner in such a country, a personal visit is your best option.
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