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Get ahead in the Gulf with our networking advice

If you learn any simple Arabic greetings, you’re likely to please your regional business contact
If you learn any simple Arabic greetings, you’re likely to please your regional business contact

This month’s guide on how to succeed in the Middle East offers essential tips on business practices and social etiquette

The Middle East is rich in opportunity for businessmen and women, but entrepreneurs keen to forge partnerships need to remember that norms and practices can vary from those in Europe or the US.

The region is diverse in ethnicity, religion and cultural practice too, so it’s useful to know about etiquette and hospitality mores for each country, as well as their economies.

Here’s our step-by-step guide to networking in the Middle East.      

Check the calendar

The weekend in most Middle Eastern countries falls on Friday and Saturday, as Friday is the holy day in Islam, although the UAE has switched to a Saturday-Sunday weekend this year.  

Civil society uses the Gregorian calendar, but the Islamic lunar calendar influences the dates of religious festivals and events. 

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Business hours are often reduced and it’s wise to avoid organising meetings. The two key festivals to note are Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, and Hajj, the end of the annual pilgrimage. It can be hard to predict exactly when the holidays will fall in the lunar calendar, so it’s advisable to avoid planning business around these times.

Remember, too, some Muslims pray five times a day, with a call to prayer sounding from local mosques at dawn, midday, late afternoon, sunset and later in the evening. There might be a prayer room in the office and you might want to consider prayer times when scheduling a meeting.

Physical or virtual meetings?

There’s less of a divide between personal and professional life in the Arab world than in other cultures. Now we appear to be past the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, face-to-face communication is preferable to doing business by email, phone or video call.

It’s vital that your company is represented by a senior figure. In some cases, it’s also wise to use an intermediary, or contact sponsor, to ensure you’re meeting the right decision-maker. When working in Saudi Arabia, it’s crucial to employ a contact sponsor with high-powered friends or family members who can lead you to the correct partnerships for your business. In Egypt, a local agent can help get you the right contacts and save you time by introducing your business in Arabic.

Scheduling can be more last minute in the Middle East than elsewhere. It’s best not to book meetings weeks in advance and to send a reminder a day or two before the session.  

Greetings, my friend  

Learning any simple Arabic greetings is likely to please your Gulf business contact. They might assume foreigners don’t even know the words for Hello (Marhaba), Thank you (Shukran) or God willing (Inshallah) – the last expression is often used when discussing future plans.

It’s a thoughtful touch to have business cards printed in Arabic and English, too. Use your right hand to give and receive cards as using your left hand can be deemed impolite. 

Handshaking is the accepted norm but – if you’re a man meeting an Arab businesswoman or a woman meeting an Arab businessman – wait for them to extend their hand as more conservative Arabs prefer not to shake hands with the opposite gender.

How to gain trust

Historically, a business partner must also be considered a friend, hence the importance of face-to-face meetings to build trust. Share small talk on topics such as family or travel before getting down to the job in hand.

The maxim, “It’s not what you know but who you know” is considered quite normal, and is known as “wasta”. Don’t be ashamed of name-checking any high-powered contacts. Receiving and returning favours can also help forge bonds. 

Attending the meeting

While it’s advisable that you show up on time, don’t be surprised if business contacts from the Middle East are more relaxed about punctuality. Also, don’t necessarily expect a meeting to be structured around a rigid agenda. Be prepared for interruptions, either by other employees entering the room, phone calls being taken or emails being checked. None of this is a sign of disrespect and, fear not, after the chit-chat, the point of business will be addressed.

The Gulf’s companies tend to have hierarchical structures – older, more experienced employees in the top positions and lower-level employees tending to remain subordinate. 

Remember to take copies of any printed material in case the person you’re talking to isn’t the primary company representative and so your business plans can be passed on to the actual decision-maker.

Driving a hard bargain

Arab business partners can be tough negotiators – unsurprisingly since they often hail from centuries-old trading societies.

Negotiations can progress at a slow pace and you shouldn’t try to close any deal hastily. Arabs find it more embarrassing to lose face in public than some other cultures. Rather than disagreeing directly or contradicting your contact, phrase your responses diplomatically. Try a phrase such as: “That’s a good idea/plan/solution but this proposal might be even more effective…”

Stay calm when dealing with Middle Eastern bureaucracy, as it can take time and effort to secure permits, visas and other paperwork.

Dress to impress 

Although smart-casual clothing is acceptable in some business sectors, many Arabs are concerned with outward appearance as evidence of social status. A well cut suit, good-quality shoes and a decent watch will reflect your standing in society. 

Businesswomen visiting the Middle East should dress modestly to avoid displaying too much skin, but again this depends on the country. A businessman or woman in the UAE, particularly in the emirate of Dubai, can expect to dress more or less as they would anywhere else in the world. For businesswomen travelling to Saudi Arabia, clothing that covers from the neck to the ankles and all the way to the wrists is expected, as is a headscarf.

Your counterparts in the Gulf countries are likely to wear traditional dress, usually a thobe (long robe) and keffiyeh (headdress) for men. Women in the Gulf may wear an abaya (traditional robe) and headscarf.

Enjoy Middle Eastern hospitality

Hospitality is a significant part of Arab culture, bound up with family honour. Show appreciation for and reciprocate any gestures of generosity, whether it’s paying for food, drink, entertainment, transportation or the offer of a personal tour of local landmarks. 

During a meeting, you’ll probably be offered tea, coffee, water and biscuits – as you would anywhere else. In Saudi, coffee is often served towards the end of a meeting. In Morocco, you’re more likely to be served mint tea.

If your host invites you to a restaurant, it’s good form to return the invitation rather than offer to go Dutch. If you’re fortunate enough to be invited to dinner at your host’s home, take a small gift, but not alcohol which, along with pork, is forbidden in Islamic law. 

Food is usually served in the middle of the table for guests to help themselves from communal platters. In some Middle Eastern homes, you’ll sit on the floor to dine, again with dishes shared in the middle of the floor.  

As you would anywhere else in the world, do not bring up business unless your host does and avoid the topics of religion and politics. Displaying knowledge of your host’s country — whether ancient Egypt or the dynamism of the UAE – could endear you to your prospective business partner.

The key is to avoid preconceptions about Gulf societies while respecting traditions. In the UAE, which has a large expat population, some companies might conduct business on Western terms while others might merge local and international values in business practice. 

Networking associations

  • The British Business Group Dubai is a not-for-profit business group open to companies or individuals from the UK with business interests in the region. BBG members include British-owned, Dubai-based companies, UK registered organisations and UK passport holders. The group provides early access to opportunities and market intelligence, as well as hosting some 60 events per year. For more information, email info@bbgdxb.com 
  • The GCC Business Council is a one-stop shop for contacts, commerce and community, bringing together the business leaders of the seven-member-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. It has local representatives in each of its markets who can help you identify partners and build your brand. It runs educational seminars, new market development trips and networking receptions, as well as web-based marketplace offers, access to member tenders, cost-saving programmes, and advertising and sponsorship opportunities.
  • The International Business Women’s Group Abu Dhabi is a group of professional women of all nationalities who are keen to network and do business in Abu Dhabi. It holds monthly events (workshops, lunches, teas, evening socials) between September and June, where it invites speakers to deliver topical presentations to guests. Individual membership costs AED400 ($109) a year and includes discounts for events.

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