Most of the people of the Middle Eastern countries of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates speak Arabic and most Arabs practise Islam. To the majority of Arabs, Islam is less a religion in the western sense than it is a way of life and a reason for human existence. It influences, for example, social relations, personal behavior, the business and legal environments, and the treatment of women. Although English is widely spoken, it is advisable that foreigners visiting the Middle East, particularly for the first time, know something of Islam as this would not only indicate to their Arab hosts that they were sincere about doing business, but could also help to avoid unintended insults or misunderstandings.
As part of the code of Islam, people of the Middle East value hospitality, generosity, loyalty, friendship and modesty - and this extends to the business environment as well.
A former communications advisor to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defence related The following anecdote:
"I understand that in Arabic there is an expression very similar to our `mahana'."
"Yes," replies the Arab. "The word is `bukra'. Like `mahana it means `tomorrow'. But `bukra' does not imply the same sense of urgency"
Arabs traditionally view time as a continuous flow of events in which past, present and future, rather than being well-defined and separate, tend to blend in with one another. They do not view human activities as being controllable by man through advance planning or clock-watching. Rather, events are determined by the will of Allah (Arabic for God). Thus, Arab businessmen are frequently late for appointments. It is ironic, however, that visitors to the Middle East are expected to be on time for appointments as a sign of respect.
Once a meeting commences, it may turn out to be much longer than anticipated. This apparently nonchalant attitude towards business can be understandably infuriating to those who are used to strict deadlines and discipline, but the establishment of trust and personal relationships is considered much more important than a prompt conclusion to business meetings or deals. As a result, business may not even to be discussed at a first meeting between Arab host and his foreign business partner.
Rank and status are important in the Middle East. Business executives who hold senior positions normally only want to deal with people of a correspondingly high rank. When meeting an Arab and his colleagues for a business appointment, it is the practice to shake hands with the most important person in the room first, and thereafter shake hands with the others in turn. A general nod in the direction of the group is considered impolite. The other guests are not necessarily business associates - they may even be friends and relatives who have no direct connection with the business at hand.
The Arab handshake is gentle and limp, and eye contact is important during a greeting. Business cards are not necessarily exchanged at the beginning of a meeting - you should wait until your hosts offer their cards before extending your card. Once everyone is seated, refreshments, usually in the form of strong coffee, or tea, will be served and will continue to be served at regular intervals during the meeting. So as not to offend your hosts, is important to accept up to three cups. It is not so much what is offered but the symbolic significance of the acceptance that is important. The refreshments must be taken with the right hand. The left hand is reserved for using toilet paper in the Middle East and it is therefore an insult to accept, offer or hold anything with the left hand. Another custom which must be observed is not exposing the soles of your shoes - the feet are the lowest part of the body and touch The ground. To display them publicly is offensive in this part of the world.
While these forms of etiquette may seem to have little to do with the business at hand, adherence to these norms creates a good first impression and could even determine the ultimate success of a business transaction.
Any technical or promotional literature being brought to a meeting should be translated, and illustrations in promotional material should be appropriate for the target audience.
|In Neil Chesanow's The World-Class Executive, the following story is related
Arabic is read from right to left and pictorial sequences are also viewed from right to left. One US marketer of laundry detergent, unaware of this, designed for Arab countries showing a series of three illustrations - with soiled clothes on the left, the product in the middle and clean clothes on the right To the Arabs, who viewed the sequence in reverse, The detergent took clean clothes and left them soiled.
When `talking shop', Arabs may, out of a sense of politeness, be reluctant to say `no', particularly if they are in a position of authority. If an Arab says `maybe' or perhaps', there is a good chance that he means `no'. Conversely, `Yes Allah willing', means `maybe' in the Middle East. `No' is indicated by a backward jerk of the head, a sudden raising of the eyebrows or a clicking of the tongue. The western gesture for `no', i.e. a sideways shake of the head, means `yes' in the Arab world.
Periods of silence are normal during discussions and negotiations in the Middle East, and do not indicate displeasure. Nonverbal communication is particularly significant for the foreign visitor. Eye contact is considered to be an attempt to look `behind a persons eyes' in order to gauge someone's inner qualities. For this reason, Arabs neither converse nor greet each other publicly with sidelong glances. They will always stop, turn and face each other squarely in order to chat. Arabs stand close to each other during conversation, and when a discussion becomes particularly animated, they may stand closer stilll In the Arab world, placing your hand on your hips is a sign of a challenging attitude, while sneezing, sniffling, coughing and blowing your nose are considered impolite and should be muffled.
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