Arabic Business Etiquette and Culture

Would you like to know what to do in a business setting when you are in company with Arabic business people? If so, read on…

Arabic Greetings - what is the correct way to greet?

Greet your business partners with a handshake. These can last a lot longer than in many parts of the Western world as Arabic Business Etiquette recommends that one person waits for the other person to withdraw. It is unlikely that, if you are greeting a woman, you will shake hands, especially in public. You should operate by the rule of caution and wait for her to offer her hand. Likewise, if you are a woman doing business in an Arab country, wait to see if the Muslim man offers you his hand. You should always greet the most senior person in the room first, and always use your right hand, as in Arabic culture, the left hand is used for bodily hygiene and so is considered unclean.

You should address people with their title (Dr or Mr) followed by their first or given name. Likewise, address women with a title such as Miss or Mrs followed by her first name. Men should avoid addressing women without using a title.

Business Relationships

In the Arab world, a great deal of emphasis is placed on personal relationships – it is having a personal network of contacts and acquaintances (called wasta) that allows you to speed up processes and get things done. Business is conducted based on trust, personal relationships, mutual respect and quite often family ties. You will find it easier to get places and get rules bent and things done quicker if you make the effort to build these relationships.

For this reason, the stage of exchanging pleasantries and chatting before business commences can last a lot longer than would be typical in Western countries, and often the whole of the first business meeting can be taken up with social discussion.

One of the most important concepts in Arabic business culture is the idea of saving and losing face. It is extremely important to avoid openly criticising or disagreeing with your Arab business partners because this can cause a huge amount of embarrassment and seriously harm your chances of a fruitful business relationship. Arabs are very sensitive about respect and being disrespected, and causing them to lose face, even unintentionally, can be very serious. If you believe that you have made a faux pas, apologise – although do not do this in front of anybody, because this will cause your business colleague to lose even more face. If you have caused offence, apologise privately.

The concept of saving and losing face means that it can be very difficult to gauge the status of your business relationships. Because disagreeing with somebody openly would cause them to lose face, you may believe that you have a deal with your Arab counterparts when really, you are not on the same page at all. Watch out for phrases such as “I will think about it” or “We are considering it”, as well as any evasive body language – this could indicate disagreement.

Do not be surprised if Arabs are very late to meetings – agreeing to a 2pm meeting can sometimes mean some point during the afternoon, because in the Arab world the sense of time can be more elastic. Equally, appointments are dealt with a lot more casually – when trying to make an appointment, you may be told to come whenever is convenient to you. However, you would still be expected to call ahead and advise them that you are coming.

Be aware that meetings last a lot longer than in the Western world and sometimes they can seem to go on forever! Do not be surprised if meetings are chaotic. People will often wander in and out unannounced and expect to discuss their own agenda, while taking telephone calls and sending texts and emails are considered a normal part of meetings. The most important thing is to understand that this is how things work and not to get frustrated. Signs of irritation, such as looking at watches or expressing a desire to hurry things along indicates to the other party that you are not interested in what they have to say and may cause offence. Also, do not expect your business deal to be worked out in one meeting – it may take several long meetings to reach an agreement!

It is always best to book Arabic interpreters for your business meetings and have important documents, marketing materials and any other important information professionally translated into Arabic. This will facilitate understanding and foster good professional relationships.

What about Business Culture during Meals and Social Occasions

Arabs are generally very hospitable and it is polite to accept invitations and displays of hospitality. Accept food and drinks and be sure to compliment your host on their food and hospitality. Remember that because much of the Arab world practices Islam, it is not permitted to consume alcohol in public or certain meats such as pork. This means that if you are hosting a business dinner you should not offer your Arab guests an alcoholic drink!

Don’t worry, however, as this situation is unlikely to occur as business meals in the Arab world are almost always held in restaurants or hotels. It is customary for the host or the person who extended the invitation to pay. If the meal was a spontaneous suggestion, it is more than likely that the Arab will insist on paying. Do not make a show of contradicting, because this will cause the host to lose face. It is also embarrassing to discuss splitting the bill. This should be done privately.

The influence of Islam on Business

Much of Arabic business etiquette and culture is influenced and governed by Islam. For example, business is interrupted five times a day for prayers and Friday, the holy day is either a weekend day or ends early for noon prayer. Therefore, you should be aware that business appointments should be avoided on Fridays, and you should be prepared for interruptions during the day for prayers.

Likewise, during Ramadan, work tends to only be done early in the morning. During Ramadan, it is poor etiquette to eat in front of people who are fasting. Even if you are offered a drink, you can refuse it, saying that you are doing so out of respect for their fasting. This will show respect for their culture and please them.

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What is Business Dress like in Arabic Countries?

For foreign businessmen, a standard business suit is the norm. Your Arab counterparts will most likely wear a more traditional dress but will not expect it of you.

For women wishing to do business in the Arab world, things can be a little more complicated. In some Arab countries, you should ensure that you have your arms and legs covered, but beyond that there may be no more restrictions. In other countries, women must have their head covered and in some cases may need to be chaperoned by a man in public. It is best to research the individual country to get a better understanding of female dress.

Don't let this happen to you!

The manager of a British company is looking to export to United Arab Emirates. He greets his Arab counterpart and exchanges the usual pleasantries. When they have exchanged trivialities for a couple of minutes, he smiles and says “Right, let’s get to business.” The Arab businessman looks affronted and is noticeably cold following this exchange.

If the British manager had known more about Arab business etiquette, he would have known that personal relationships and the getting-to-know-you period are much more important than in most Western countries and the time spent on social niceties before getting to the practicalities of business is much greater. Lingua Translations offers cross-cultural training to ensure that mistakes of this kind are not made and that your Arab business relationships are the most fruitful they can possibly be.