The Arab Gulf states are “high-context“ cultures. Therefore, body language as part of a non-verbal communication plays a particularly important role. Besides the context in which something is said, facial expressions and gestures are a major contribution in transmitting information.
Signals of body language
In communication with Gulf Arabs you should observe exactly whether the spoken word and the body language are harmonious with each other. If that is not the case, give added attention to the body language. Facial expressions and gestures often speak volumes.
Simultaneously, you yourself should definitely take note of your body language, because Gulf Arabs will pay close attention to it and will interpret your facial expressions. For example, in Gulf Arab countries patience is a virtue that very few Westerners master. But even if patient listening or waiting stretches you and in some situations demands a lot of you, you should as far as possible suppress a nervous face expression or any gesture that might show your impatience.
And shaking your head as a reaction to a request is not well received by your Gulf Arab business partners either. Instead, just say “yes“ and do not mean that as agreement, but rather in the Arabic sense of “Yes, I have perceived you and what you are on about“. Harmony between conversation partners is for Gulf Arabs absolutely something worth striving for.
Against that background caution is in general called for in the Arab Gulf states – that means that you would do better to avoid too resolute a demeanor or loud laughter.
And an excessively lax way of sitting at the negotiating table your Gulf Arab business partners will not look on as “cool” but rather as boorishness. So make sure your sitting posture is good; that is also a sign of respect.
Gulf Arabs avoid eye contact if they do not know somebody well. A direct look into the eyes is regarded as a very intimate thing. If your Gulf Arab business partner does not look you in the eye that proves absolute respect.
That eye contact between a man and a woman is even more controversial is taken for granted. Staring at a female Gulf Arab business partner during a conversation or seeking all too intense eye contact during a meeting is therefore an absolute taboo.
However, you as a foreigner should behave in a manner befitting your culture. A cultivated looking away has to be learned and, when foreigners try to use it, it often makes a strange impression on locals. It can perhaps be best expressed like this: looking at your business partner at the greeting or in conversation is allowed – on the other hand staring or intense eye contact are to be avoided.
Once the business collaboration has already become more intense, that is also expressed in eye contact. Then it may well be that your Gulf Arab business partner will hold your hand for a long time in his and look you straight in the eye with a firm gaze. That unusual proximity is then a sign of friendship and commitment. But that is true only for male business partners!
Being prepared for those Gulf Arab characteristics will certainly help you, not to react in an alienating way.
There are some taboos that you absolutely must observe in the Arab Gulf states. Blowing your nose, for example, is regarded as an extremely impolite gesture. So if you really must blow your nose retire to a toilet or another unobserved place.
As well, you really must avoid showing the soles of your shoes, for example when sitting with crossed legs.
Relating to women
In public men should make sure they do not look too intensely at a woman, because a Gulf Arab lady or her male companion could easily misunderstand that. It is just as important to keep a certain distance. For example, avoid getting into a lift with a Gulf Arab woman. That bodily proximity embarrasses a strictly religious woman and she would be forced to leave the lift.
Polite gestures toward ladies, for example opening the door for them, are on the other hand quite well received in daily Gulf Arab business life.