Bridging the cultural gap in the Mideast

Success in business across the globe requires a clear understanding of how cultural differences affect the way a deal is done.

Being aware and appreciating these differences promotes clearer communication, breaks down barriers, builds trust, strengthens relationships, opens horizons and gets results for all involved.

With the significant growth of business in the Middle East, and in particular the Gulf, international organisations have seen an increase in people coming from other parts of the world to make deals. But for many businessmen and women, knowing how to conduct a meeting or do business in the region can be a minefield.

“There is a multitude of business, social and religious practices that should be considered before conducting business in any Middle Eastern country,” says Terri Morrison, President of Getting Through Customs, the  training firm for international travellers and co-author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: the Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries.

“This encompasses learning the appropriate physical greetings with the proper titles and forms of address, negotiating, gift-giving and appropriate and inappropriate gestures.

“It is important for every international executive to learn the protocol in each culture because this raises one’s credibility,” she adds.

An excerpt from the chapter on Saudi Arabia from Morrison’s book states: “Don’t expect Western-style checks and balances in Saudi Arabia. Government contracts do not need competitive bids, and transparency is almost nonexistent.

“The Saudis have their own way of doing business, and they feel it works fine.”

Kimberley Roberts, who heads, which offers a wide range of training methods to help executives and businesses be more successful in the Middle East, says: “In many Western cultures, and particularly in the United States, there is a very long tradition of how business negotiation is conducted, and deals arrived at.

“However, the Middle East also has certain ways in which business should be done, it is important that people from both sides know what these are.”

Roberts says she has found these two styles have a basic and significant difference, one that often causes great frustration for Western business people.

“In the West both sides sit down at the negotiating table, share their thoughts, ideas, offers and counter offers. This negotiating process can take a few minutes, or last for weeks. However, at some point each side of the negotiation alters their position closer to that of their opposition.

“Step-by-step each side moves towards a middle position that is acceptable for both. At that point, they agree, shake hands, figuratively speaking, and the deal is done. No further changes or negotiations are expected,” says Roberts.

“However, in the Middle East the conclusion of the negotiating process is only the beginning,” she adds.

Roberts explains that these two positions are dramatically different and, therefore, executives need to tread carefully to make sure they do not lose out on a deal.

“People in the West are often taught that ‘your word is your bond’, that when you make a commitment, you adhere to it. It is the ultimate foundation to creating a trusting relationship with another person, whether in business or personally.” Roberts also emphasises that when a Western businessman completes a negotiation with another party, and both agree, the Westerner is giving his or her bond, the ultimate commitment of trust and truth.

But if the other person does not honour the agreement, or the business deal that has been negotiated, that trust is lost. “They feel they can never trust that person or organisation again,” adds Roberts. 

It is important to bear in mind that this also works greatly in the Middle East and that the spoken word is more respected than a signed agreement.

Cross-cultural understanding is an important tool for any international business professional, company or organisation to acquire when doing business abroad. According to Morrison, the Middle East has a variety of “complex and intriguing cultures that must be adhered to”.

She adds: “If international executives take time to research traditions and cultural orientations prior to their visit, they will enjoy stronger relationships with their partners and greater successes in these closely knit business communities.”