You need to consider Arab cultural customs if you want to expand your business into any of the countries that make up the Arab world. Arab culture and customs are present in 22 countries around the world, including a population of over 444 million people.
They all share Arab culture, customs and traditions, and Arabic is the common language. Understanding their idiosyncrasies and respecting their traditions is key to doing business with them.
Arab culture: customs and traditions you need to know
Business culture in Arab countries is quite different than in the Western world.
There's a very thin line the personal and professional realms in the Arab world, and both are influenced by the religion and customs of Arab culture. So, it's not just about what you negotiate, but how and with whom, and it can mean the difference between success or failure for your business endeavor.
These are some of the most relevant points:
- The importance of personal relationships. The boundaries, between professional and personal relationships, as we mentioned above, are practically nonexistent, so a partner or collaborator needs to be considered a friend you care about. Who you know can often be even more important than the business you’re trying to conduct.
- Wasta. This is an Arabic word that translates to "influences" or "contacts." To establish business relationships you need to know someone notable in the company or hire an intermediary to put you in contact with the right person or people.
- Time in business does not pass the same for Arabs as for Westerners. Arab businessmen consider initial meetings to be a way to get to know each other and share interests in subjects that have nothing to do with business. Questions about the family, country of origin, the trip or how the stay is going are common questions that need to be answered with other similar questions. Do, however, avoid asking specifically about the women in the family, as this may be awkward or interpreted as offensive in countries where polygamy is an accepted way of life.
- The concept of punctuality is also different. It’s not unusual for people to be half an hour late or more. On the other hand, if you're the foreign visitor and you show up at the agreed time, they’ll perceive that as a sign of respect.
- The partnership mentality is paramount in the Arab world. It's common for the chief negotiator to want to consult with his entire team on every major decision. This is another Arab custom that means negotiations take longer.
- It is crucial not to disagree in public. Regardless of the rank of the person you are addressing, never correct them in front of others. Use indirect formulas such as "we might consider" or "we could also look at it as..." to avoid annoying the other person.
- Watch your gestures and non-verbal language. Sitting cross-legged and showing the soles of your shoes or giving a thumbs-up sign are gestures that are considered rude by Arabs.
- The customary greeting is a long-lasting handshake. Don’t pull your hand away before the other person does. If you are greeting an Arab woman, wait for her to hold out her hand. Likewise, if you're a foreign woman, wait for Arab businessmen to initiate the greeting.
- Hospitality is one of the pillars of Arab culture. Tea, coffee or something light to eat are usually offered at meetings. Accept it and be sure to hold it with your right hand. If you are left-handed, it helps to offer your apologies before using your left hand to write.
Preparing for a business meeting with people from the Arab culture
As you can see, the Arab culture, its customs and norms, are different from the Western way of doing things. So, before going to a business meeting with people from this culture, you should be familiar with the most relevant issues and even learn some greeting phrases. It never hurts to show interest in the target culture by making an effort to express yourself in the corresponding language.
The Arabic language is the official language used and understood by the majority of Arab people. But everyday usage is based on one of its many dialects. In fact, the most widely understood is the Egyptian dialect, because it's the most heavily populated Arab country.
Be sure to have a professional service with native translators and interpreters who know the dialect and customs of the country where you’re interested in doing business.