In the Arab Gulf states good relationships between business partners always take priority. Business is a personal matter and never just about the products. Accordingly, every business meeting involves a lot of small talk to help participants get to know each other better and build up trust.
Gulf Arabs speak circuitously, are very skilled with words, and have at times a very flowery way of expressing themselves. It can take a bit of time and patience to get down to business.
Foreigners used to a more straightforward communication style may feel that the Gulf Arabs’ unwillingness to come to the point is a pure waste of time. On the other hand, Gulf Arabs mostly equate a more direct communication style with a lack of politeness. Talking only about business will be off-putting and inspire little confidence.
Aiming at harmony
The Gulf Arab way of communicating is as a rule indirect, since being together is aimed at harmony. One is always careful not to offend through harsh words or negative statements. The golden rule is to allow everyone to save face by expressing oneself as diplomatically, skillfully and as positively as possible.
Where does this practice of indirect communication in the Arab Gulf states come from?
For a start, the Koran. The Koran does indeed speak directly about prohibitions and commandments, but indirectly there is a lot of room for interpretation. The reader is expected to interpret teachings from historical events. If the mentality of your partner is particularly religious, it is certain that his style of communication will be based on expressions found in the Scriptures.
Apart from that, communication in the Arab Gulf states is determined by the hierarchical structures which are partly based on religion, partly on history. For example, the head of the family makes the decisions. Other family members have more or less no say, though that depends on sex and age.
In everyday business, one is expected to behave according to one’s place in the group and one’s hierarchical rank. There too, the boss makes the decisions. Staff members want direct, clear work instructions from their superiors. The indirect form of communication otherwise dominant in the Gulf Arab world is not appropriate in a work environment.
In short, we can say that in both private and business areas there is a high power distance that is mirrored in communication. What the father or the boss says may not be doubted and must be obeyed.
Ingroups and outgroups
There is a differentiation in Gulf Arab society between ingroups and outgroups. Inside the ingroup relationships are very intense. That is true in family, friendships, or religious communities. There, direct communication is dominant. An honest opinion may be uttered, but only in private. And since neighbors could be listening, words should be chosen carefully. Again, the most important thing is not to cause oneself or others to lose face.
A foreigner and a Gulf Arab businessman are part of an outgroup and should use an indirect style of communication. They can, if the public is excluded, communicate directly. However, in that case a lot of tact is called for.
Yes or no?
Back to the indirect, relationship-oriented communication in everyday business: when you have to turn down a request or an invitation, giving a negative answer from the Gulf Arab point of view is offensive. A direct “no” places the relationship, which is of utmost importance, in danger.
Therefore, Gulf Arabs always express themselves indirectly, and will answer with “No problem”, even when there really is a problem or the request made cannot be fulfilled. As a consequence an Arabic “yes” is not always to be understood as a “yes” in the Western sense, but often rather expresses a general readiness to try it.
Often, metaphors and circumlocutions are used so as not to have to give a direct no. Gestures and facial expressions, such as lifting of the eyebrows or a look of boredom, can be a clue to the real answer. If your Gulf Arab conversation partner does not deal with your matter concretely, but rather changes the topic or speaks more generally, that is to be interpreted as a negative signal. Statements such as “I’ll think about it,” or “Let’s see what happens,” generally mean no.
If you yourself have to give a negative answer try to wrap it in benevolent words. Stress some positive aspects and put in your negative answer afterwards. Explain why you have to decline an invitation to a meeting with “I would like to come, but unfortunately on that day I have family responsibilities.” In that way you both save face and do not endanger a good relationship with a negative statement.
If you have to criticize someone’s work effort you should try to make sure the person involved does not lose face, as that would harm your reputation as well. Assume that Gulf Arabs are very quick to feel that their dignity and honor have been insulted.
Thus, criticism must always be expressed in private and as indirectly as possible. Start by recognizing many positive efforts before carefully naming points that could be improved. Think about this: it is more important to preserve harmony and personal relationships than to attribute blame to somebody and to demand accountability.
On the other hand praise is always welcome, even desirable. In praising someone or something, you may use very direct words. However, praise should not be delivered directly but via a third person. That way reputation, respect, and possibly social hierarchy of the person presented to positively are enhanced.
If it should come to a conflict, it is important to know how important the relationship between the disputing business partners is. The general rule is that if the business relationship is regarded as unimportant, then even in the Gulf Arab world there can be direct and public communication. But if the relationship is regarded as important, often an intermediary is called in to calm the waves that may be stirred up by unwise words.
Rule of thumb
In summary, a rule of thumb for respectful communication in the Arab Gulf states: whoever takes into consideration the particular interconnectivity of relationships and hierarchy knows when it is appropriate to communicate directly or indirectly.