Cultural Differences – Arabian countries

Tradition and a societal system – these are the corner stones that mark the community spirit of the countries belonging to the Arabian cultural milieu. The center is the Islamic family – values that are important in family-life and society apply just as well in business-life. Therefore generosity, mutual care and respect are virtues that you should definitely display when doing business in the Arabian world.

Admission to the family

Making a new business contact in the Gulf States always includes the readiness to enter a new family. In this context status and age define the position that a person occupies. It is therefore advisable to look for an experienced and senior middleman who can help you set up initial business contact since you will profit from his status until you get the chance to earn your own recognition.

As a consequence Arabs consider a business partner not just a delegate of his particular company. Instead, they sense his whole personality and thoroughly check if he fits into their “family”. The same applies to negotiations during which the focus rather lies on the involved persons than on the project: there is hardly any distinction between relationship level and factual level. Because of this negotiations will usually be preceded by many joint meals. The topics discussed there will be hardly connected to your planned project. Instead, you will get to know each other on a personal level which may include questions about attitudes, opinions and values. Frequent and extensive business calls are of immense importance for the later success of the collaboration. E-Mails and phone calls can in no case compensate a personal meeting!

Etiquette guide for Arabian countries

  • Don’t forget to bring a present from your home country when visiting your business partner
  • Keep in mind: the left hand is considered impure
  • The days of the weekend are Thursday and Friday
  • Never arrange appointments during Ramadan
  • Reject invitations and offers twice. Only the third attempt is meant seriously.
  • Dinner is often served after 10 p.m.
  • Always show respect and interest
  • Be careful with gestures that may have a different meaning in Arabian countries

Intense negotiations

Initial negotiations in Arabian countries may be very extensive since they lay the foundation for a long-term designed business-relationship. In return there will only be little negotiating during later projects – in most cases things will then be running smoothly.

In negotiations bargaining is always part of the game – Arabs measure their own success in terms of how big the difference is between the price originally offered by their counterparts and the final price. Therefore it is a delusion to think that bargaining can be avoided by offering a low price right from the beginning! Instead, it is essential to start with a price that is actually unrealistically high. On the other hand it is important to clearly let the other party know about your absolute limit. After doing so you might have to bear long phases of silence – breaking the silence means making concession!

One good turn deserves another

One good turn deserves another: This could well be considered the basic principle of the Arabian business world. Therefore, if your business partner is asking you a favour you should never reject. Even if you cannot fulfill a certain wish – it’s your motivation and goodwill that count. A vivid example for this is the fact that when asking someone for directions you can be sure to always get an answer. Even if the asked person does not know the right way he or she will point you in a direction – it’s better to say something wrong than to snub you by saying nothing at all.

Saving face

Just like in other Arabian States the principle of saving face also applies to the Gulf States. In case you cannot avoid a conflict it may only be solved by slowly moving towards each other. Goodwill is demonstrated by making small concessions and by showing how hard it is to do so. It requires quite an amount of patience and sensitivity if you want to adapt to this kind of “sitting out” a conflict. Yet, in negotiations with Arabs your goal should always be to demand concessions of your counterpart without losing sight of his dignity.

You will make your Arabian business partner feel very unpleasant if you try to push him towards making concessions. But instead of saying so he will try to avoid this by making indirect statements or by postponing the decision.

Excessive style of communication

Members of the Arabian cultural milieu have a rather excessive, bloomy and indirect communication style. In addition to that Arabians communicate very expressively: they are very articulate, like to interrupt each other and communicate not only verbally but also on a non-verbal level. If a person is not used to this kind of communication style he or she may well get a little exhausted when being confronted with it.

During a conversation Arabs usually stand very close to one another, also they tend to touch their counterparts and try to pull them closer. Even if you feel uncomfortable in such a situation it would be impolite to withdraw in order to regain private space.

Irrelevance of time

Just as in quite a lot of other regions of the world time and punctuality do not have top priority in the Arabic region. It may well be the case that a meeting with Arabian business partners is interrupted for an indefinite period of time by phone calls or even by unexpected visitors. However, this is not about being impolite. The reason behind this behaviour is the dominating relationship-orientation of Arabs. If confronted with a situation like this, patience is all that counts. It might also happen that an Arabian businessman doesn’t show up at all for a scheduled appointment. Even if it may sound like a flimsy excuse: helping a relative move is a sign of respect and a question of duty. It therefore goes without saying.

All in all there is no doubt that when planning a business trip to Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or to the United Arab Emirates you should be well prepared in order to be able to deal with the peculiarities of the Arabian business culture.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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