Seven Tips for Doing Business in the Middle East

Arab Business Review
Reading Time: 
5 minutes

If you are moving to the Middle East for a job or business, keeping these points in mind point can help increase your chances of success:

  • Do not rush while greeting people
  • Building trust is important since personal and professional relationships are not separate
  • Verbal commitment is honored and valued more than contracts and agreements
  • Patient is a great virtue - both before and during business meetings
  • Negotiations will be tough and sales cycles will be long
  • Best way to communicate is to have face-to-face meetings
  • Avoid business talk at social gatherings

Any plans of moving to the Gulf region to pursue your dream job or start a new business venture or partnership? If yes, then before you do so, there are a few things you should bear in mind -- these are related to business culture, business etiquette, meeting protocol, negotiation techniques, etc. all specific to the region. Business in the Middle East runs on a very different track as compared to other regions worldwide, especially the Western world. In the points below, we will offer you some tips that will prove helpful for you while conducting business the Middle East.

1. Do not rush while greeting people: While meeting and greeting people in the Middle East, do not mind if the handshakes last for a longer duration or if your hand is held while you are being led to a different place. This is because one should wait for the other individual to withdraw their hand first as per Islamic etiquettes. And yes, always use your right hand to eat, shake hands or hand over any item to anyone. If you are a male member of the team and are being introduced to a female colleague, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is being extended. If not, then one should not try to shake hands. In terms of addressing people, Arabs are informal with names while doing business and like to be addressed by their first names.


2. Building trust is important since personal and professional relationships are not considered separate: In the Middle East, business is carried in a very different manner as compared to the Western nations. Business relationships are formed on mutual friendship and trust, and personal matters are prioritized over everything else. Arabs prefer to do business with people they know and like.  So, if you have friends working at the right places at the right time, the road to a successful business trip is laid out for you. 


3. Remember that verbal commitments are valued more than contracts and agreements: Middle East’s culture accords more value to someone’s word as compared to a written agreement. So before you make a promise to deliver something, be sure that you will be able to complete it, since failure to do so can lead to a loss of respect and reliability.  Contracts are merely a memorandum of understanding rather than fixed binding agreements.


4. Have patience before and during business meetings: Do not schedule meetings too ahead of the actual date as changes in personal circumstances of your Middle East counterpart can impact your appointment.  Also, the initial meetings will revolve around knowing each other; so, it’s only after several meetings that the actual business talks would start once the trust and compatibility factors are established. Do not mind if meetings are chaotic. People will take phone calls during meetings and might enter the meeting room unannounced and start discussing their own agenda items.  


5. Negotiations will be tough and sales cycles will be long: Arabs are excellent negotiators. Bargaining can be seen everywhere, be it a shopping outlet or a board room.  Decision making is slow with bureaucratic formalities increasing the delay further. Also, sales cycles are a lot longer in the region as compared to the West. You should not expect immediate results from initial meetings and make sure that you follow up, arrange further meetings and maintain correspondence. Refrain from using high pressure business tactics as they can backfire. Be flexible and patient! In fact, patience is the most valued virtue in the Gulf and if you can demonstrate it in the most frustrating business situations, you will surely reap the rewards.


6. Best way to communicate is face-to-face: Verbal communication is preferred over written communication in the Middle East. The written word is treated as less personal and hence you can find your emails receiving no response for some time if you do not follow up through phone calls. A few countries such as Saudi Arabia do not prefer to do serious business with Western people over phone and thus a personal meeting is the only option you have!   


7. Avoid business talk at social gatherings: If your Gulf business partner invites you to a house party, do not try to discuss business at any point of time. You can bring something small as a token of thank you. Do not gift alcohol as it is not consumed by Muslims. There will be a lot of socializing and small talks before the meals are served to the guests. It is considered good manners to reciprocate the hospitality that you receive. Hospitality is held in high regard throughout the Middle East and people take great pride in lavish shows of hospitality — never ever refuse it as it can be considered offensive!

While you keep these tips in mind, take care of some of these points as well:

  • During Ramadan (the holy month of fasting for Muslims), do not eat or drink in front of Muslims
  • While eating, do not use your left hand; it’s considered unclean
  • Do not cross your legs and display the sole of your foot towards anyone
  • Never interrupt Muslims during namaaz (prayers), a religious ritual they perform five times in a day

Just remember these tips and you will not face much difficulty while doing business in the Middle East!