Setting up a business in the Arab Gulf states is more of a personal endeavor than a business one, as personal relationships drive all business there. There is no separation between relationships and projects. Accordingly, business activities are preceded by many shared meals and after work activities.
Topics discussed at these meals and activities will generally have nothing at all to do with the planned business deal. The whole aim is to get to know each other personally, and private questions about attitudes, values, and opinions are all a part of that.
To really cement a business relationship with Gulf Arabs, you must visit frequently and be prepared to stay a while. No personal interaction can be replaced by telephone calls or emails. Face to face interaction is a must.
Relationship development does not end when business is good. It continues indefinitely and shared meals and after work activities serve as a basis for problem solving and further project development.
Asking once is not asking at all
If a Gulf Arab business partner issues an invitation you should definitely accept, but not right away. Politeness decrees that at first you cautiously and gratefully refuse, perhaps saying that you don’t want to cause inconvenience. If your business partner invites you again, say thank you again for the generous invitation and repeat that you don’t want your host to go to any trouble. Only if he issues the invitation a third time – according to the “three times rule” – should you accept and express copious gratitude for it!
How a meal proceeds
You will certainly eat well in the Arab Gulf States as business meals mostly take place in first-class restaurants. A certain formality is to be expected. Let your host decide on the seating arrangements, which will be according to the hierarchical rank of the participants.
Be prepared for very large meals, often buffet-style. No pork is served, and as a sign of respect for your hosts you should also refrain from alcohol.
A business meal in most of the Arab Gulf states lasts about one to two hours and finishes rather quickly after the last bites. In some countries, e.g., Saudi Arabia, you meet relatively early but the meal itself is not served till after long conversations, at about 10 p.m.
Always express your gratitude for the hospitality at the end of a business meal and if possible promise a reciprocal invitation.
Gulf Arabs are very proud of their country and will surely invite you along on various sightseeing tours, depending on the length of your business visit. It is best to ask about dress codes, rules of conduct and what sort of preparation is to be observed if, for example, you visit religious sites or make a trip into the desert.