How to be respectful to the Arab Culture

Communicating with Arabs in Business

Common Knowledge for Good Business Dealings

    The business culture in the Middle East is completely different than the American business world.  However, the importance of good business dealings in that area are of extreme importance to our country.  This page is to help Americans communicate, understand, and most importantly, do business in the Middle East.  Some of their habits, and cultural differences could be very foreign to an American business man, but after learning some basic Arab ettiquete, we can feel a lot more comfotable dealing with them.  In general Arabs are very loving, humble people, and they expect the same out of their counterparts.  We need to learn to respect them and their culture, just as we expect them to respect ours.  Next, I am going to talk about common ettiquete in business dealings with Arabs.  

Sometimes when trying to set up meeting dates with your Arab clients you will find that their answer is something like "Whenever you are in the area give us a call". Don't interpret this as a sign of lack of interest in your business. It is equal to an answer that sets a specific date and time. Allow enough time for social chat with your Arab clients before you open any business discussions.

Your business Advertisement should be conservative in content and appearance and does not present any social values or situations that contradict with Arab culture or Islam. In almost all the Arab countries advertisement should not directly or explicitly contain comparisons between two different brands for the same type of products. Messages should place more emphasis on the quality and functionality of the product. The main advertisement outlet sources are newspapers, magazines and television.

If you are invited to a Dewaniah, you are not expected to bring food, drinks, or gifts. Muslims pray 5 times daily where each prayer lasts for about 15 minutes: at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prayers are usually held at the Islamic worship places called "Mosques". Regular gathering in Dewaniahs usually takes place after nightfall prayer and sometimes between the sunset and the nightfall prayers. Upon entering the house as you approach the Dewaniah notice the Dewaniah's door. If shoes and sandals were left at the door by other guests, then take off your shoes. It is customary when entering a Dewaniah or an office to greet everyone there by saying "Alsalamo-Alikom", which means "peace be with you" and it is the equivalent of saying "hello". The reply to this greeting is "Wa'alikom Alsalam". Once inside the Dewaniah, everyone will stand up to greet you and shake your hand. Start with the person standing on your right side or the one who is approaching you. If you are a first time visitor or elderly, most likely your host and the attendants will offer you a seat at the head of the Dewaniah as a sign of respect and honor.

    It is very helpful to provide your clients with literature that is produced in their own language, especially if the literature will be passed by your overseas partners to their customers. If you intend on using a local translation service provider, be sure that they fully understand the targeted language, and the audience. I am sure that you have heard about some companies resulting to changing the name of their products when introduced to a foreign market because an exact translation proved to be ineffective or in some cases offensive.

    Arabs mistrust people who do not appear to be sinceare or who fail to demonstrate an interest in them personally or in their country.  On the other hand, initial reactions by your Arab associates to your suggestions, ideas, and proposals can be quite misleading if don't know anything about their culture.  Arabs are not likely to hint that changes are needed or to give more subtle indications that the proposal is unacceptable-by inaction for example.  If you are frustrated, and feel that things are being delayed, don't rush for time, because you may actually harm your chances of success.  (Nydell, Margaret K., Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Modern Times, 4th Edition, Boston, MA, Intercultural Press, Inc., 2006, p.58-59)

The "Save Face" Concept

The "Save Face"concept is essential in understanding the Arab culture. The Arabian culture is a non-confrontational one which seeks the least conflict possible.  I believe that this concept is so important to all aspects in Arab culture, business being a big one.  We need to understand that Arabs do not enjoy confrotations, and they use this method of "saving face" to get out of situations without being embarresed or discomforted.  To do good business we need to learn and respect this, although maybe frustrating, its just how it is.  Like I said earlier, the Arab people are generally a very cultural based, loving people, who have a high value of human dignity. They will try to avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs, especially when the person's dignity and self respect is endangered.  This concept is extremely true between family members.  Arabs are very close and protectful of their families, and will almost say any thing to "save face" of, lets say, a brother or a sister.  Even if they were in the wrong, it would not be worth your time to go ask a close family member to "rat them out."  Saving someone's face or dignity involves using maneuvers or holding one's reactions to give the other party a way to exit the situation with minimal discomfort or harm to their dignity. It involves compromise, patience, and sometimes looking the other way to allow things time to get back to normal. The "save face" concept is looked at as a behavior of high quality ethics and manners.  This concept of sensitivity is not limited to extreme situations only. For example, when someone is pressuring an Arabian businessman into committing himself to a matter that is not of interest or beyond his capability, he might indirectly refuse the matter by offering to study the subject, which might incorrectly be interpreted as a yes answer. So remember, no pressure sales tactics because they cause discomfort and might associate you as a person with unpleasant presence. There is no separation between you as a person and the business you represent in your conduct in the Arabian world. Business is not only business.

The Arab Women in the business world

The purpose of this section is to teach the average business man the role of women in the business society.  Although it might seem strange to an American who is used to working around women all day, everyday, and very commonly having them as bosses, this is still a new phenomonom in the Arab world.  To do business properly and respectivly in other countries and areas of the world, such as the Middle East, learning all aspects of business, like the role of men and the role of women, is important to understand.  Still holding onto old traditions,  the rights of women in the Arab world isn't as free as they are in America.  Although in many countries in the Middle East women in the everyday work force is becoming much more common.  Countries like: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordon, and Iraq play a huge role in all levels of society.  In other countries, such as the Arabian Gulf, fewer women have jobs, because for  the most part the income is not needed.  In such countries like Saudi Arabia women are becoming educated and receiving degree's, but few are present in the workplace.  The ones who do work, are mainly in all-female environments; an exception is made for the medical professions.  Weighing the Islamic law(Sharia) against current Western criteria of what constitutes women's equality has become very controversial.  Most people (men and women) believe that this idea is outdated and needs to be considered greatly.  Although this change comes from different interpretations of the Qur'an, and like any holy scripture can be confusing and unclear.  Wadouda Badran, secretary general of the Arab Women's Organization, stated, "Nobody ever said that the change is going to happen overnight.  At least we have the commitment of the governments that they want to work in this direction."  (Nydell, Margaret K., Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Modern Times, 4th Edition, Boston, MA, Intercultural Press, Inc., 2006, p.45-46)  

In a recent interview with the Institute, Alex Zalami, Executive Director of the Dubai Ethics Resource Center, responded to a number of questions regarding responsible business practices in the Middle East. The Dubai Ethics Resource Center (DERC) is based in Dubai and is the region’s hub for organizational ethics advocacy, training, and research.  Zalami gave some very enlightning answers to some of the questions that were asked him during the interview.  One was about the role of women in business, and this was the response. There were many questions posed, and this is a great site for general knowledge on the Arab's view on how business should be carried out in their land. 

The Institute: We understand that Saudi Arabia has passed a labor law aimed at increasing the employment of locals, including women; although it restricts the fields in which women can work.† Is this part of a general trend? Can you elaborate on what companies should be aware of in terms of gender discrimination?

Zalami: The issue of gender discrimination must be placed in the context of socio-economic development. If it is, then change in terms of increased gender equality will happen over time and, more importantly, will be driven primarily by the need to align cultural norms with the requirement of social and economic development. For example, in the UAE, unemployment among national women is nearly 20 percent – about double that of males. Of these women, 79 percent hold a university degree. Women bring unique business advantages and this translates into a strong business case for leading companies to meet Emiratization targets while acting as change agents by hiring more women. The implied lesson for Ethics Officers of global organizations in the UAE and the greater Gulf region is that the issue of gender represents not only a risk factor, but also an opportunity to address corporate social responsibility with sound business decisions. 

Some Essential Information

Anothter important aspect to Arab business is that they not, lets say, as pushed for deadlines as Americans are.  We all know that the business world in America is all about how much a certain employee can get done, in the shortest amount of time, with the cheapest price.  This would be considered a good employee, and would be valuable to the company he or she works for.  Schedules and deadlines are crucial in American business.  However, the Arab people aren't as pushed for ttime as we are.  They definitely have a more flexible attitude towars time and do not always start or finish at the appointed time.  One flaw to this is that even though punctuality to them may not seem to important, they expect their foreign counterparts to be very punctual.

Since the Middle East is mostly Muslim, you need to respect the huge role that religion plays in daily life.  We can't forget that time must be put aside for prayer, five times a day.  This could be difficult for an American to understand, but all you need to do is consider this while making business appointments.

Middle Eastern business culture tends to be hierarchical. Leaders separate themselves from the group and power is distributed from the top. The most senior person in the company usually makes the final decisions. Those in a more subordinate position represent the business during meetings but do not usually have the authority to make decisions.

Middle Eastern society tends to be very status conscious. It is important to address colleagues and superiors with the appropriate title. Generally people are addressed with their title followed by their first name. Common titles in Arab culture are “Sheikh” which means wise man or scholar; “Sayyid” which is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad; and “Hajji” which is man who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Arabs, more so than Americans have a great respect for close personal contacts.  Establishing these contacts is a key factor in business dealing with Arabs.  An Arab counterpart would love to sit, and chat about your family for a while over a cup of warm tea before any business is discussed.  If you learn this concept, you will be much more successful than the guy who is pushing for time constantly.

People in the Middle East place great emphasis on respect and dignity. Younger colleagues, in particular, must address their business counterparts with the appropriate title and act in a respectful manner at all times.

The idea of women working in the Middle East is not as common a concept as in the West.  But as we mentioned earlier, it is becoming much more common to intermingle men and women in the workplace, and even have them as your leaders and bosses.  This is growing rapidly in countries, such as the UAE, Qatar and Omen.  There are significantly more women working in Israel than in other Middle Eastern countries.

Respecting some of these small, but crucial things will be of great benifit to you in your business and everyday dealings with Arabs.  A little respect will go a long ways in the Middle East.  So before you jump on that plane to go over there, make sure to freshen up on some Arab ethics practices, and realize what it takes to be a good business man with the Arab people.

More information on the subject

For training courses and additional classes:

For additional information on the subject, here are some wedsites that will be useful:

Books and journals to check out for extra information: