Tips for doing business in the Gulf region

When doing business abroad, geographical boundaries are crossed, but so are cultural ones. A business partner may display differing lifestyles, norms and consumption behaviour. Here a some tips for doing successful business in the Gulf region.

Gain trust

  • Know the country’s history and culture
  • Let someone introduce you
  • Make frequent visits
  • Work on the relationship
  • Mention a person's title
  • Keep your team consistent
  • Do not express strong religious or political opinions
  • Be flexible

Show respect

  • Greet the most senior or oldest person first
  • Be aware of existing hierarchy
  • Respect religion
  • Watch your body language
  • Dress conservatively
  • Ask about someone's family, not wife

Have patience

  • 'First friendship, then business'
  • One business trip will not seal the deal
  • Hang in there, business is there
  • Develop your own wasta
  • Accept gestures of hospitality
  • Do not mind waiting

Fundamental principles

  • Knowledge of Gulf region etiquette and the personal manner in which business is conducted is imperative for any commercial success.
  • It is not customary to start talking about business immediately. As business in the region is based on a personal connection, establishing trust is the starting point.
  • Patience is a virtue. Business is not rushed into and negotiations may take longer than in Europe.
  • Make sure to be on time, but do not be offended if meetings start a little later. It comes with the culture and slower paced lifestyle in the region.
  • Age plays a very important role in society and one must show respect to elders at all times.

First contact

  • Appointments for business talks are necessary.
  • Once an appointment is made, it is recommended to remind your conversation partner of the meeting a few days in advance, preferably through a phone call.
  • Fix meetings through common contacts as much as possible. Gulf region culture is strongly based on the services exchange network system.
  • Most businessmen have a weekly majlis, an informal meeting place where one can go if invited personally. This is a suitable place for socializing and meeting key contacts.

Greetings

  • The first greeting is 'essalamu aleikum', meaning literally ‘for peace’; the reply is 'wa aleikum salam'.
  • Avoid staring at people.
  • Once invited to enter, be prepared to take off your shoes if the floor of the room is covered by a rug or a carpet. Follow the lead of your host.
  • If there are several people in the room, you should always greet the oldest person first.
  • Address your counterparts with the appropriate titles, such as Doctor, Shaikh (chief), mohandas (engineer) and ustadh (professor), followed by his or her first name.
  • GCC nationals are quite informal with respect to the use of the names of their Western visitors. It is customary to address a Western person by his first name preceded by Mister or Miss.
  • Traditionally, the right hand is used for all public functions, including shaking hands, eating, drinking and passing objects to another person. The left hand is considered unclean and is reserved for hygiene. Avoid making gestures with this hand and do not point at another person.
  • If the associate is a lady, you should not shake hands with her unless she initiates it. It is also important to avoid prolonged attention. If a Western lady has an appointment with an Arab man, she should not directly shake hands but wait till he initiates it.

Business relations

  • Private and professional life are not strictly separated.

  • It is important to develop a degree of trust and familiarity before starting a business relationship. Thus face-to-face meetings and leisure meetings play an important role. Considerable time may be spent exchanging courtesies and several visits may be needed to establish a relationship. It is therefore crucial to stay in touch and, if not (yet) established locally, regularly visit the region to meet with people face to face.

  • Invest time in finding the right partner or agent that is most suited to your working style. It helps to be introduced to a potential partner by a mutual contact.

Gifts

  • Gift giving is much appreciated but not necessary. Gifts are generally exchanged between close friends and are seen as rather personal in nature.
  • If a gift is offered, it will be opened only in private.
  • There are some prohibited gifts: perfumes in alcohol base, pigskin articles and objects representing dogs, knives or gold jewelry.
  • If a gift is offered to a Westerner, it is very impolite to refuse it. It should be taken with the right hand.

Business communication

  • Be aware of non-verbal communication in a business setting to avoid misunderstandings. During a business meeting, people use body language and eye contact rather than direct words. People make assumptions about what is not said. Particular emphasis is placed on tone of voice, use of silence and facial cues. For instance, silence is often used for contemplation and one should not feel obliged to speak during these periods.
  • It is not advisable to cross your legs showing your heels as this is viewed as an act of aggression. The 'thumbs up' gesture is also perceived as aggressive.
  • Be prepared for serious negotiations.
  • Avoid political and religious statements or topics. Sports are an appropriate alternative for small talk.
  • Respect prayer times and do not act surprised when your conversation partner interrupts the meeting and leaves the room for 15-20 minutes for his daily prayers.
  • If a drink is offered, it should always be accepted. Refusal is considered as impolite.
  • One should not feel offended when the host takes telephone calls during a meeting or allows other people to enter.
  • The person who asks the most questions is likely to be least important. The decision-maker is likely a silent observer.
  • Decision-making is long and pressuring to speed up the process will not work at all.

Dress code

  • Visitors are expected to dress in a conservative, smart fashion.
  • Men are expected to wear suits and ties for business meetings. Women should wear business suits that are not too revealing (long sleeves and pants/skirt).

Business cards

  • Business cards are common but not essential to business culture.
  • It is advisable that you have your business card information printed in both English and Arabic.
  • Card must always be given with the right hand.

Business hours

  • Make sure to contact or call people at appropriate times, excluding prayer times and late at night.
  • The working week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday.
  • Friday and Saturday are the official days of rest.
  • Office hours tend to be split in a morning and afternoon/evening session.

Did you know?

  • Men walking hand in hand is a sign of friendship.
  • Men greet each other by letting their noses touch.