Many business training courses concerning the Middle East will include modules on Arabic for business and business etiquette. Even a little knowledge gained on Arabic courses can be extremely useful. Even for individuals who believe they are bad at languages can find that speaking Arabic can be relatively easy and even a small vocabulary may actually go a long way. Written Arabic is rather more complex. Likewise knowledge of the common customs and cultural traditions will also be invaluable when using Arabic for business. It may also avoid significant problems and embarrassment.

Different types of Arabic

It should be remembered that when you are considering Arabic for business there may be significant variations between countries. Although written Arabic is largely standard, the way it is spoken and used varies considerably from the far west, for example Morocco, to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. In some countries, for historical reasons, French or English may be in common use but in others Arabic is the only option and usually the only official language. 

Dubai by night

In Dubai English is widely spoken (source)   

Let me illustrate this with a few rather brief examples. Before even visiting an Arabic speaking country Arabic for business can become relevant. Many Middle Eastern countries still require that supporting documents for visa purposes are submitted in Arabic with the translations properly certified. This can also be the case for commercial invoices for goods for customs clearance at the destination. Always check this in advance and ensure that you have enough time to assemble and submit the correct paperwork. If your company is dealing in this part of the world the advice of your local Chamber of Commerce is invaluable and you can also join the local network of Middle Eastern trade associations and Chambers of Commerce. In the USA this is the Arab American Chamber of Commerce. They have specialists who can advise on the current visa and documentation requirements for all the Arabic speaking nations. Also remember that if your customer is a government ministry or state organisation the documentation can be onerous and time consuming.

Storm at the port

Dealing with paperwork saves time at ports like Jeddah (above) (source

In my many years of experience working in the Middle East I frequently found that a lack of appreciation of the importance of Arabic for business caused both suppliers and their customers considerable expense, delays and inconvenience. Several examples come to mind but in several instances business travellers arrived in Saudi Arabia with either incorrect or expired visas and were then immediately deported. The Saudi host was left wondering where his visitor had disappeared to. Equally problematic is when a consignment of goods arrives at the port without the proper documentation. Demurrage is expensive and if the goods are perishable the shipment may end up being a total loss. The end result was that what should have been first shipment of a rather lucrative contract resulted in a loss of credibility and that was the end of that. Although often the rules and regulations may appear confusing, as in other overseas markets it is possible to work through the system. This often achieved by using a reputable local agent or sponsor. In some countries it is virtually impossible to do business without one. Whatever your area of business it is usually easy to research possible partners. The local US Consulate, Arab American Chamber of Commerce as well as trade associations can be useful sources.

Laws and Taxes

 As in many other areas of commercial activity Arabic for business is vital. Many companies and even expatriate workers are often so concerned about tax and legal issues in their home country that they run into trouble with local taxes, commercial, corporate and labour regulations. There is a perception that the oil rich countries are tax free and that foreign companies do not need to worry about them. I was personally involved with two cases, one American company and one European where failure to register as commercial entities for the major contracts they were working on resulted in payments being suspended by the customer and substantial fines and penalties having to be paid. In fact in both cases if the foreign companies had registered when they first started activities they would have enjoyed full tax exemption. Always check on the relevant legal and accounting regulations before starting activities, preferably use the local office of one of the major international firms, most have associates in the region. They can be invaluable.

Etiquette, Culture and Language

 Obviously in this article we have only looked at a small number of issues associated with Arabic for business. Business etiquette, culture and Arabic courses are major topics in their own right. Also, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, there are a substantial number of expatriate workers. It is advisable to avoid preconceived ideas of what you are going to find. It is possible to find a variety of attitudes to business in the same city let alone between countries in the Middle East.


The view from Kingdom Tower in Riyadh (source)

Arabic for business is not solely a question of attending Arabic language courses and taking the time to learn basic Arabic. It involves spending some time and making the effort to research the ground rules and culture of the area where you want to do business. If done in a proper professional manner it can be a satisfying and rewarding experience.