How To Conduct Business In The Middle East

Ramadan and Eid are over, which means back to business in the Middle East. Here's how to do it right.
September 06, 2011

Ramadan and Eid are over, which means back to business in the Middle East. For many western companies and entrepreneurs doing business in the Middle East, this last month was uneventful and slow, as observant Muslims shutdown during day in honor of the holiday. For many Muslim business owners and entrepreneurs the month amounted to limited hours of operation during the night, or, not at all. Unlike Judeo-Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, Yom Kippur and Passover—which typically interrupt the business week for a day or two—Ramadan is much longer lasting. (This year Ramadan lasted from Aug. 1-30 with Eid on Aug. 31, and many businesses don't officially return to work until Sep. 10.)

Keeping good business relations within a global marketplace is critical to success, so it’s not a bad idea to familiarize with a little etiquette for working well with Middle East clients. I spoke with David Hanzal, president of Technologies International, LLC, a reseller of educational equipment for universities that have offices throughout the Middle East, about how he successfully keeps on top of things as a non-Muslim doing business in the Middle East.

Business and personal are interchangeable

Religion and family are typically prioritized over work. The western notion that business is business and personal is personal doesn’t apply. Business in the Middle East is personal.

“It is seen as very disrespectful to just dive into business,” says Hanzal. “You don’t interrupt someone unless it’s something that may cause a financial problem, or affect the way they provide for their family. You also have to have patience and not demand an immediate answer.”

Follow the laws of the region

It would be highly inappropriate to bring alcohol as a friendly gesture or order alcohol during a dinner meeting (unless you’ve otherwise been given the cue that it is OK). Everyone has their own levels of observance, and country laws and flexibility differ.

“Bringing a bottle of booze is a great way to end any relationships in the Middle East,” says Hanzal. “Avoid eating or offering from a pig too. It’s considered a dirty animal."

Address clients respectfully

In the Middle East it is preferred to use titles and surnames.

“I’m always addressed as Mr. Hanzal, or, Engineer David,” says Hanzal. “It is proper to use full name in e-mails and a Mr./Mrs. when meeting in person. If you are a male and planning on doing business with a woman, be very cautious when shaking hands. Only do so if she extends her hands first. Don’t spend a lot of time looking her in the eyes, and certainly do not touch her. (Frequently when doing business with a female client, other men will join the meeting as well to insure respect.)”

“Avoid using your left hand when touching things, it is seen as unclean. Never cross your legs and show the sole of your shoes; this is an insult.”

Be patient and wait your turn

When your business associate is ready to talk business, they will. Business is often conducted over a meal or in the company of a client’s family for Hanzal so he never leads the conversation toward business, rather waiting instead for his client to set the tone. Hanzal suggests taking time getting to know a client. Discussing sports, family and any hobbies are very welcome—the Middle East peace process less so.

“Enjoy your conversations, enjoy getting to know them on a personal level, and just understand that it is an honor for them to let you to into their life,” says Hanzal.  “It will go a long way in your business relationship knowing that you respect them. They will not only be a good business associate of yours, but will also consider you a good friend, which also is an honor.”

Be aware of the Middle East workweek and weekend

The workweek is typically Saturday to Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday as the weekend. However, in the UAE it is Sunday through Thursday.

“Do not bother anyone on Friday, it is their most holy day,” says Hanzal.

Be prepared to negotiate

Westerners are notoriously uncomfortable with haggling. When selling goods or services, negotiations are very much a part of the culture.

“A better price will always be asked for no matter what is being offered,” says Hanzal. “I see people come in on their first project and lose their shirts because they didn’t anticipate there would be negotiations.”

Don’t necessarily go in with an inflated price though. “Keep it reasonable, but make sure you’re comfortable with some wiggle room when closing the deal,” he says.

Plan ahead during the holidays

After years of doing business in the Middle East, Hanzal knows that to be most the effective, he should get as much work done as possible before Ramadan.

“I bank as much work as I can before everyone shuts down and stops working, because often I won’t get a response until Ramadan is over.”

Don’t get too comfortable during Ramadan

While that month affords him a generous amount of free time, when the holiday is over, the workload returns with much longer hours and can be doubly hard. In the west, observed Judeo-Christian holidays are often a welcomed breath of fresh air for those who don’t partake. Non-Muslims in the Middle East must craft a balance of vacation and productivity.

Prioritize privately

After Ramadan there is a lot of catching up to do. Prepare with lists that outline what needs to be done immediately.

“There is an understood sense of “we need it yesterday” in the Middle East,” says Hanzal. “I prepare a list of the most pending issues and address them first, but I am careful not to let anything seem less important. I am firm that all issues will be addressed.”

Arrive early even when your client is not

Arriving early is a tremendous sign of respect in the Middle East.

“Foreigners are especially expected to be on time,” says Hanzal. “The truth is they are rarely on time themselves [but] they kind of consider you late if you come on time and on time if you come early.”

Don’t worry, you’re probably not being yelled at

A raised voice doesn’t mean someone is angry or argumentative. High voice volume (culturally) is often merely a tool for asserting power and leadership.

“Meetings can get crazy sometimes,” says Hanzal. “Don’t be intimidated. It’s a good way to figure out who is running things.”

What has been your experience doing business in the Middle East?

Image credit: xiquinhosilva