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How to Do Business in the Middle East, Courtesy

How to Do Business in the Middle East, Courtesy

Tower, photo by Charles Buchanan
Office building in Kuwait City, Kuwait, photo by Charles Buchanan

Success in conducting business in the Middle East is dependent on understanding the customs and courtesy of the culture you are doing business with. Although the customs vary by country, certain basic customs exist that anyone traveling to the Middle East should be aware of. After living and working in the Middle East for over five years, in three countries, am able to pass on some information about courtesy and customs of the Middle East. It is my hope that this information may help you in your business relations.

Building Relationships:

Most business successes in dealing with Middle Eastern businessmen (yes it is very much still a male dominated environment) involves developing close personal relationships. It is important to be prepared to spend the proper time with your client. Do not expect to go to your first meeting, give a handshake and move immediately into a presentation. Be prepared with your materials at the this first meeting, but expect it to be little more than an introduction. (especially on large projects). If your client is more progressive you may move forward, but take your time and do not be pushy.

Middle Eastern businessmen expect you to sit and drink Chi (sweeten green tea and perhaps eat some light food like Hummus (chickpea dip with Arab bread) or honey sweets. This is an important courtesy and it is important that you accept and sip the tea and at least sample the food. This hospitality is a formality that is necessary to move forward to business. Conversation will be generally light and will involve asking about your family.

Most Middle Eastern business men are very family oriented and want to gauge you on your family life and connections. This is why older family men are generally more respected than young men in business (age = knowledge and wisdom). Respect, patience and courtesy will normally be directed toward you, it is expected back from you for business to procede.


Be prepared to present a small gift. This of course should be appropriate for the type and scale of business you are doing. This is not bribery. It is respect. You should visit the office of your client, he offers you Chi and when it is appropriate to give him a small gift. This is perhaps a pen, samples, mouse pad, calendar, briefcase, etc. Your company products or items with your company name are often appropriate. This should not be money, and (be aware that the Middle East uses an Arabic Calendar) Items with English on them are acceptable (many items used in business are bilingual English / Arabic. Never should the items be made of pigskin, this may seem obvious, but be aware that pork or any part of the pig is considered forbidden under Muslim religious beliefs and often under law.

Kuwait Science Center
Science Center, Kuwait City, Kuwait, photo by Charles Buchanan

Language barriers:

Be aware that many Middle Eastern businessmen speak and write English very well. But do not assume that who you are going to see will speak English at the first meetings. Bring a translator.

Many businessmen will not speak English until they get to know and trust you. Foreigners who assume that the client doesn't speak English, and speak to their associates within earshot, may find that they have either given the client information that they did not intend to give, or will have inadvertantly offended their clients. ALWAYS ASSUME YOUR CLIENT SPEAKS ENGLISH! Even if you have no indication that he does. It can be quite embarrassing, and more importantly can lose you a business deal if you make comments thinking the client doesn't understand you and he does.

Know some basic Arabic Words:

These are basic phrases. I suggest you get a good translation book that phonetically gives the phrase. Using shuay (a little) Arabic shows a sign of respect. You will not generally be expected to know Arabic.

Assalaam Alaikum -Peace be upon you
the reply is:
Wa Alaikum assalaam -And peace upon you

Another less formal greeting:
Marhabbah - hello
the reply is:
Marhabbteen - hello

Sabah al kaar - good morning
the reply is:
Sabah al noor

Masah al khair -good afternoon and includes evening
the reply is:
Masah al noor

Shukran - thank you
the reply is:
Aafwaan -you're welcome


Negotiations on large projects will often take twice as long as in the US or Europe. Once you have established your credibility and have built trust with your client, you must be patient with decisions. Many business deals involve more than just the individuals you are dealing with. Some businesses require the elder of the family to approve, or a consensus of the senior business partners, often family or tribal backers of the business. Be honest, friendly and patient. Be willing to take the time and make the extra effort. Get to know your client and the business culture.

There may be a series meetings, dinners or invitations to individual's homes or restaurants. Attend. Bring a family gift, sweets are a good idea.

Before visiting a private residence find out the local customs when dealing with women; In Saudi Arabia you generally will not meet or address wives and daughters. In Kuwait, Dubai, Egypt, Iraq and more progressive Middle Eastern countries, the wives will be involved in a family dinner. Find out what is proper as a gift. As a rule men should not pay any undue attention to women not involved directly in the business. Do your homework so you do not offend your client.

Kuwaiti mosque
Mosque, photo by Charles Buchanan

Religious Sensitivity:

In general, Muslims are much more overtly religious than many Westerners. Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Plan your meetings around prayer times and be aware that meetings will often end or be interupted by the call to prayer (actual calls for Muslims to go to the mosque or to pray in private.)

You will see mosques and minerets throughout the Muslim world. Do not enter a mosque unless invited or you are a Muslim. Do not take photos of mosques or religious sites unless you know it is acceptable in the country your are in.

In countries like Saudi Arabia that practice Shira Law (Religious law) you might be restricted from all contact with women. In these countries you will generally not encounter women at the workplace and should engage with women that are not Westerners. Here again your translator can give you guidance.

Also be aware that there are many Christians, Jews and other minority religious sects, as well as many ethnic groups that live in Middle Eastern countries. Find out who you are dealing with in business before having proposing a business meeting. Do not assume everyone you are dealing with in business is Muslim or Arab. Your translator can help you with local customs and expectations.

Tips & Warnings:

  • Try the food presented to you. Many Middle Eastern foods are very good if a little different from US or European foods. This is polite and flatters the host. If offered finger foods eat with your right hand and try not to touch food with your left hand.

  • Keep your sense of humor enjoy the cross cultural experience. If you are respectful your client will forgive small mistakes, the culture in the Middle East is very forgiving of foreigners that are trying to be respectful.

  • Be patient and enjoy the slower pace.

  • Learn some basic Arabic terms and phrases.

  • Do not bring alcohol, any pornography or pork products to the Middle East, most are illegal, can get you arrested and will be seized at the airport, if not you will offend your clients (there are exceptions for alcohol, like Dubai, but check first. I recommend never in front of your clients.

  • Point with your hand, not your finger. Pointing is considered obscene or belittling to some.

  • Do not use the "OK" symbol.

  • Never beckon someone with your finger, use your whole hand.

  • Do not take photographs of people, especially women without their permission. Check before your take any photos of Mosques or holy sites.

  • Do not talk to un-escorted women on the street (learn the countries rules, many countries are very conservative).

  • Do not enter a Mosque unless you are a Muslim or are invited and it is allowed, check first.

  • Do not stare at women, it is rude everywhere but may be against the law in some countries.

  • Do not Lie: If you are caught in a lie you will most definitely cause a problem in business. Business relationships are based as much on trust and respect as contracts.

  • Do not refuse Chi at meetings. This is rude and shows disrespect.

  • Do not sit with your feet up and showing the soles of your shoes toward people it is rude and a sign of disrespect.

  • Do not leave your Passport in your room or unattended. Any overseas travel has the risk of theft of your Passport. Keep it with you or in the safe in your room. Keep a Xerox copy in your luggage in case it is stolen or lost, this will help you get a new one at the embassy.



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