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Doing Business in the Middle East

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 4 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Doing Business In The Middle East Doing

There are many misconceptions about doing business in the Middle East and it’s only by doing your research and by actually experiencing it for yourself can you begin to break down some of the myths and stereotypes that surround Middle East culture which after all, is so diverse that one country’s approach to business is likely to be somewhat different from another’s. Because of this diversity, this article can do no more than simply illustrate the kinds of general issues which you need to be aware of and it’s important that you read up on the specific country you’re heading to, in order to gain an understanding of how business is done there.

The Importance of Islam

The Islamic faith is not simply restricted to times of prayer. On the contrary, it transcends all areas of life in the Islamic world including values, guidance on how you conduct your life, community relations and the way in which people do business. You need to firstly understand that Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day and whilst some Muslims do not necessarily pay a daily visit to a mosque to do this and will pray in the office, any meetings will still need to be planned around prayer times. Fridays are never a good day to plan a meeting as males are required to attend congregational prayers and you should avoid the month of Ramadan also.

Meeting People Formally

You’ll get accustomed to being greeted with the phrase ‘Assalamu alaykum or ‘alaikum’’ which translates into English as ‘Peace be with you’. As a Muslim greeting, you are not obliged to use it but if you decide to, you’ll be answered with ‘Wa alaykum salam’ which translates as ‘And peace be with you’. One thing the Middle East culture does observe in a similar fashion to the Western world is the customary use of handshakes. There is, inevitably, a slight difference in style however. Whilst you still shake hands using your right hand, be prepared for the fact that the handshake can last quite a long time and, to be on the safe side, you should let your host release your hand. Don’t get ruffled and try to remove your hand from their grip as that is considered disrespectful. You may also find that Middle Eastern business people will want to hold your hand as you walk along. Especially if you’re a man, do not be disconcerted by this, it’s traditional in some parts of the Middle East and does not have the same connotations as it does in the West but is considered respectful. You’ll also notice that you’ll be referred to with your title and first name as opposed to title and surname so a man called Bill Jones would be addressed as ‘Mr Bill’.


If you are introduced to a businesswoman as a male, you should wait to see if they offer you their hand to shake. If they don’t, then don’t try to shake hands with them yet don’t feel they are being disrespectful either. Don’t try to touch a woman on the shoulder or grab their hand during a conversation and try to avoid lengthy eye contact.


Because business and family commitments are so interconnected in the Middle East, always confirm any meetings a couple of days before if they’ve been originally arranged earlier as sudden family commitments can often be given priority. Meetings can tend to be a bit disorganised. They’ll often not follow any specific agenda, raising issues as and when in no particular order. They can sometimes be noisy and can be often interrupted by people who enter the room unannounced to discuss their own issues. Telephone calls can also interrupt the flow of any meeting at any time so be prepared to be patient, flexible and to expect the unexpected. And, although it sounds hypocritical, Middle Eastern business people place a lot of emphasis on your punctuality yet don’t seem to be too concerned if they don’t turn up on time. They do, however, understand that as an English person, you may have a set timetable and need to discuss certain specific issues so, if that’s the case, you should state that you’re looking to hold a ‘mow’id inglizee’ which translates into ‘English meeting’ and they will duly oblige.

Finally, on the subject of negotiations, you’ll not be too surprised to hear, if you’ve ever visited Muslim countries on holiday, that Middle Eastern business people are masters in the art of haggling and this extends to the board room as well as the market stalls and shops so don’t be surprised if you’re subject to a long drawn-out bartering process but don’t try to drive too hard a bargain or be forceful in your negotiations as that will often backfire on you.

As mentioned earlier, however, these are just general guidelines for the region as a whole and you should do your homework and find out more about the culture and the etiquette of the specific area you’re travelling to before you head out on business.

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