So, you would like to work in or do business with the Middle East. Perhaps before you start out on this venture we should examine the ease of doing business with each of the top six countries as ranked by the World Bank.
Economy World Rank GCC Rank (Irfan, 2010)
Saudi Arabia 13 1
Bahrain 20 2
United Arab Emirates 33 3
Qatar 39 4
Kuwait 61 5
Oman 65 6
Based on this information, Saudi Arabia seems like the logical choice for the new business trying to break into the Middle Eastern Market. Irfan goes on to say: “Newcomers to the region can protect their interests in the context of an unfamiliar business environment by a) becoming as familiar as they can with Gulf business culture and ethics; b) acquiring a basic understanding about Islam; c) thoroughly researching the companies they do business with in the Gulf (in particular, the company’s track record in dealing with foreign companies); d) securing a reliable local partner or intermediary to guide you early on; d) seeking appropriate legal advice when working on your first few deals.”
Perhaps the most important of these tips from Irfan is the first two; familiarizing yourself with their culture and ethics and understand Islam. Beyond a doubt when doing business in any foreign country you must have some background in their culture and ethical ways. Making a wrong gesture or comment can thwart months of work it took to get to a point of contract or negotiating. For instance, in Islam culture it is considered rude to not shake hands, and in fact, “holding hands among men is common and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West.” (Kwintessential, ND) It is also considered rude to ask about women of their family such as their wife or daughter; keep questions about family in a general context. When greeting business women it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. If it is not, then do not try to shake hands. Avoid touching and prolonged eye contact with women. (Kwintessential, ND) Prolonged eye contact between the sexes in the Middle East is considered very intimate.
As a Westerner you may find it Interesting that ”the Arabs do not separate professional and personal life. Doing business revolves much more around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honour. There is a tendency to prioritise personal matters above all else. It is therefore crucial that business relationships are built on mutual friendship and trust.” (Kwintessential,ND) This makes it extremely beneficial to have a local Middle Easterner as an intermediary. And, lastly, “the Middle Eastern culture places more value on someone’s word as opposed to a written agreement. A person’s word is connected to their honour. Contracts are viewed as memorandums of understanding rather than binding, fixed agreements. Be sure to promise only things you can deliver. Failure to do so will result in loss of honour.” (Kwintessential,ND)
Understanding Islam that Islam is more than just a religion is also imperative to doing business in this region. “It addresses personal life in regards to hygiene, eating habits, prayer and worship offered to Allah through the recitation of the Quran. It addresses family life in the way we marry and rear children , teaching them values about the meaning of life, being good, honouring parents and elders, and how to believe in and obey Allah. It addresses the communal life in the way we should look after our neighbours, protecting their rights, and how we should look after those less fortunate than us, protecting them from harm and degradation. It also addresses governmental matters in that Islam provides a model for how its rules and laws should be implemented in society, whether societal, penal , judicial or economic. Indeed, it even addresses international relations.”(Islam, ND) You can obviously see how business is intertwined with government and government intertwined with religion, so be assured that you must appreciate Islam as their religion and their way of life in order to be accepted as a business partner. This is a far cry from our Western culture where we have gone to extreme lengths to separate church from state and our capitalistic society.
Irfan, Mohammad, 2010, 12 Tips for Doing Business in the Middle East retrieved from: http://www.businessknowhow.com/manage/middleeast.htm
Islam Explained, No Date, retrieved from: http://islam-explained.info/cache/124/1244271550.html
Kwintessential LTD, No Date, Doing Business in The Middle East, retrieved from: http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/etiquette/doing-business-middle-east.html