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The Middle East is increasingly open to business with western countries. However, unravelling the customs and codes of behaviour can be tricky. Tied into Arabic culture are a number of religious and traditional customs that influence the way business is conducted. Understanding the bigger picture can unlock a world of trade and negotiations for the savvy businessperson.
Weekends and work
According to Islamic religion, Friday is a holy day, with congregational prayers held at noon. Many Arabic countries have a weekend that runs Friday and Saturday, rather than Saturday and Sunday. This small but often overlooked detail can make a big difference to setting up meetings and doing business with Middle Eastern partners.
Saturday - Sunday Weekend
Friday - Saturday Weekend
United Arab Emirates
Islamic Lunar Calendar
With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the Gregorian calendar is the norm in most Middle Eastern countries. However, the Islamic Lunar Calendar also has significant influence over holiday periods. It’s important to note that the lunar calendar uses the moon rather than the sun to determine dates, and therefore moves back around 11 days every year. For that reason, it can be difficult to predict when exactly festivals and important days will fall. Here’s a quick guide, however:
The longest, and perhaps most important event on the Islamic Calendar is Ramadan, a month long period of fasting and prayer that begins May 26 and ends June 24 in 2017. The first day of Ramadan is based on the sighting of the first crescent of a new moon, which is why it can vary.
If you are in a Middle Eastern, predominately Islamic country, it’s polite to eat indoors and out of public view during Ramadan.
Eid Al-Fitr is a holiday starting on the first day of the month after Ramadan, known as Shawwal. It can last up to three days in some countries and means a time of feasting and holiday. Business is rarely conducted during this period.
Eid Al-Adha is another important public holiday in Islamic life. Most likely falling on 2 September in 2017, it is a time for giving, sharing and being with friends and family. The festival can last up to three days and business is usually not conducted on these days.
Note: Christian holidays
Many Arabic countries have significant Christian populations. Therefore you can expect Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter to also affect days of business.
Daily prayers are also important to many islamic businesspeople in the Middle East. Knowing when these prayer times occur is not just beneficial for scheduling meetings but also for understanding that punctuality can vary.
Face to face business
Unlike the western world, it’s less common to do business over the phone or email. Most Arab business people like to conduct discussions and negotiations face to face.
Depending on the country, meetings are also not scheduled months in advance. Rather, it’s more common for a meet and greet to be scheduled a few days to a week ahead. Be sure to confirm by phone a couple of day before the meeting as well.
To understand at least partly why this is, it’s important to note that the divide between personal and private like in most Middle Eastern countries is less pronounced. Just like we prefer to socialise with friends and family face to face, so too in the Arabic business world, a personal, face to face connection is important.
Istizada notes that if you don’t already have a senior contact in the organisation or company you want to do business with, you may find it hard to actually find someone to sit down and talk to. Often, western businesspeople will employ a ‘contact-sponsor’ or intermediary to act as a vouchsafe and help set up the initial meeting. Use of contact sponsors can help smooth the road for future negotiations when making initial contact with Middle Eastern business people.
As a sign of respect, it’s recommended you show up on time as a guest. However, don’t be surprised if your host runs late for a meeting. This is neither rude not necessarily deliberate. Time generally runs in a more relaxed fashion in most Arab nations. It’s better to go with the flow and enjoy any refreshments provided while you wait, then to let this distract or annoy you.
Don’t be surprised if your host wishes to engage in small talk. As there’s less divide between public and private life, you might be expected to answer personal questions about your life, travels, health, and the health and life of your family. Similarly, you can ask questions yourself. This initial ice breaking conversation helps create an atmosphere of trust in the meeting. Business will usually be brought up after 5 minutes of small talk.
Interruptions and hard bargains
During a business meetings you can expect interruptions to take place. These might be in the form of:
checking emails on a computer or phone
walk ins asking questions of the host or looking for signatures
returns to small talk
Don’t necessarily expect there to be a strict agenda. Be ready to lean into the Arabic way of doing things. Patience is key. It’s likely your host will drive a hard bargain, and not rush into any snap decisions. Similarly, the bureaucratic system when obtaining permits and visas can also be frustrating. Try to remember this is all part of the culture. If the cost of doing business is patience, see it as a virtue.
Like many cultures around the world, middle eastern business people don’t like to lose face in a public setting. Where western businesses are more comfortable disagreeing or pointing our errors, this can be quite embarrassing for Arab business people. Exercise tact and caution, and try to remain conversational in negotiations.
A rich variety of customs
Crucially, it’s important to note that the Middle East is not a homogenous culture. Each region, country, company and individual has their own way of doing things, so it’s important to be flexible when it comes to doing business in the Middle East. Go with the flow, be patient and don’t be too offended if a particular custom irks your western sensibilities. The Middle East has been engaged in trade for thousands of years. Being open to their way of doing things can reap rich rewards down the line.
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