Every country belonging to the Arabic cultural world is based on a social system marked by a sense of community and tradition. In the center is the family. All of the values that play an important role in the family and hence in social life, are decisive in the Gulf Arab business world as well. Generosity, reciprocal caretaking, and respect are therefore characteristics which you definitely should display in business collaboration in the Arab Gulf states.
Establishing new business contacts in the Arab Gulf states also means that one wants to be accepted in a “family”. Status and age are what decides anyone’s position. Hence at the first setting up of a business deal it is recommended that you are introduced by a senior, experienced go-between so that his status is carried over to you. Recognition for yourself you may gain in later cooperation.
Gulf Arabs do not look on their business partner only as the representative of a firm. They perceive him in his whole personality and put him to an acid test as to whether he fits into their “family”.
Conservative dress code
For a successful business appointment in the Arab Gulf area your demeanor and style of clothing are relevant. Expensive brand-name clothing emphasizes your personal status.
For men, a business suit with a long-sleeved shirt – despite the high temperatures – is usually the best choice.
For businesswomen the rule of thumb is: cover up more than you show. Your clothing can be western, but the skirt of your business suit should on no account make your knees visible. That the shoulders and arms of a lady are covered at a business meeting even in very high temperatures is taken for granted in this context. In areas with very conservative attitudes it is better to choose a long skirt or a pantsuit with a long jacket. Better avoid clothes that accentuate your figure.
On the other hand you don’t need to refrain from applying make-up. In Arabic countries the European or Western style of make-up is usually regarded as discreet and unobtrusive. As far as jewelry is concerned foreign business women can easily go overboard – and not because they are overdoing it but because they are wearing fake jewelry! In the Gulf Arab business world that is regarded as kitschy and absolutely not suitable for a reputable businesswoman.
In the Arab Gulf states greetings occur strictly according to hierarchy: always offer your hand to the person at the top of the Arab firm first. And don’t play the strong man or woman by pressing the other person’s hand as hard as possible. The rule here is rather that a gentle placing together of hands is a showing of respect. Often that can be a drawn-out procedure. As a guest you should on no account be the first to pull away your hand. It is better to simply wait until your Gulf Arab host puts an end to that type of handshake.
All in all, as a guest in the Gulf Arab countries, you should always be somewhat reticent when greeting somebody and not shove yourself too much into the center of attention.
If women are in the delegation, you as a man should not offer your hand as a greeting. In the Islamic culture it is not appropriate for men and women to touch each other in public. Leave it to the Gulf Arab business woman as to whether she extends her hand to you or not during a few words of greeting. As a foreign businesswoman you should similarly be prepared that your Gulf Arab business partner might not offer you his hand on religious grounds.
By the way, there is no “ladies first” in the Gulf Arab countries. So the man at the top of the hierarchy is always the first to be greeted. An exception is of course the case when an Arab woman is quite clearly the main conversation partner.
Business cards are exchanged with a certain degree of respect. When handing over a business card you should be careful to use only the right hand – the same is true when you accept a business card.
Your business cards should be written in English or Arabic. It is important that going by the description of your function your standing in the firm can be recognized and your decision-making rights can be derived from that.
Take good note of the names and titles of your new contacts when you accept business cards! Pay attention to the status and rank of each person, because later there ought to be representatives at the same hierarchical level who deal with each other.
Names and forms of address
It is common in the Gulf Arab area to address people by their personal names. However, titles are also used.
What some international business people might regard as a waste of time is in the Gulf Arab business world very, very important: small talk. It is usually up to the host. He might ask the visitors about such banal things as, for example, the weather in that person’s home country.
It is decisive that you don’t answer in monosyllables or half sentences. If, for example, the Gulf Arab host tells about his family and then asks whether you too have children, a short “Yes, two,” would be regarded as a crude rebuff. Present yourself as open, ready to talk, and be rather wordy when answering. But never ask directly about his wife or her husband, only about the family in general!
As well, it is quite important for you to ask questions in turn. Talking only about yourself or even boasting is interpreted as arrogance and badly received. And whoever mentions only the current business deal during the small talk period is also supplying negative vibrations.
As a rule: never try to skip the small talk! Trying to get down to business too quickly can backfire. In the Gulf Arab world a personal relationship must always be built up first before people are ready to do business with each other.
Presenting your company and products
Status and prestige play a significant role in most Gulf Arab countries. Your presentation materials should be of high quality and well designed. Use many visual elements such as films, pictures and graphics. Product samples that can be touched or handled are highly appreciated. It is to your advantage if you can show at least some materials in Arabic.
The basic rule about the contents is: don’t skimp, but don’t overdo it either. Whoever has achieved something must not boast about it, nor must he constantly talk about his successes. Gulf Arabs appreciate an elegant understatement. That means: You are welcome to show the image that you’ve gained as a successful company, for instance show a trailer about your firm or a video clip.
As well, constantly emphasize the strengths of your product and its specific uses to your Gulf Arab clients. The reason for that is the merchant culture that dominates in Arab countries. Your conversation partners want to know first of all where the benefits are for them. So during your preparation remind yourself constantly to keep it as simple as possible and leave out any complex examples of calculations or instructions for use.
If queries are made a handout with more details is helpful. Should some people are more interested in certain details it is best to talk about that in private or perhaps at a common meal. You definitely should not bore the whole delegation with overly specific knowledge!
Agreement or rejection?
Gulf Arabs do not give a direct “no” as an answer. To reject somebody’s wish or to give a negative answer would be a personal affront. So indirect statements are made so as not to have to express a direct rejection. Therefore, it is often difficult for foreign business people to recognize whether Gulf Arab partners like a suggestion or not.
Read between the lines and pay attention to body language signals. If your conversation partner does not respond directly to your suggestion, if he doesn’t answer at all or only in a very general way, if he changes the topic or offers alternatives, that is to be judged as a negative answer.
A “yes” or a vague “I’ll see what I can do“ is therefore merely to be judged as readiness, not as agreement.
As a guest in a Gulf Arab country you should let yourself be led. Put out your antennas and simply wait for what comes from the Gulf Arab side.
If your host issues an invitation after the business meeting that is in no way to be regarded as an agreement to the deal. Very often it’s nothing more than a pure gesture of politeness.
At first you should encounter such an invitation with caution. Say, for example, “Thank you so much, but I don’t want you to make a fuss over me.”
Not until your Gulf Arab business partner has emphasized several times that he is happy to invite you as a special guest from abroad, is the offer meant seriously and should definitely be accepted. As a rule of thumb: accept only the third invitation.
Building a relationship
After a first business meeting you should not yet expect a closing deal. Several visits and the building up of good personal relationships are necessary before that. In the Gulf Arab area people do business deals only with friends they trust.
After you have returned home, you should contact your Gulf Arab business partners and thank them for their hospitality. Communicate with them at regular intervals, send greetings on Islamic festivals, and try for further mutual visits.
Do not give expensive gifts, but stick to typical presents usual in the world of business instead. On the other hand, be careful in accepting expensive expressions of regard. Accepting a gift also means entering into commitments.
By the way, if you have received a gift you should bridle your curiosity. Unpacking is not done until the donor is no longer present.
A gift is taken for granted only when you visit someone privately. The most innocuous presents are Arabian sweets. Gifts containing alcohol or pork are taboo in the Islamic world.
Also be careful when choosing typical items from your home country as gifts. In strictly Islamic Saudi Arabia, a cross on a Swiss pocketknife, for example, can cause a gift to be refused.