Building successful business relationships—the Middle East

Building successful business relationships—the Middle East

According to Hofstede, Middle Eastern countries scored high in Uncertainty Avoidance. This means that here, a high value is placed upon avoiding unpredictable situations, uncertain conversations, and the unknown. To minimize the anxiety caused by uncertainty, very strict rules and guidelines are put in place. Typically, cultures that score high in this dimension implement many rituals for common tasks such as drinking tea or preparing and eating meals.

For most people, a structured guide to everyday conduct is provided by religion. Islam plays an extremely important role in the lives of the people, and this is reflected in the rules and rituals prevalent in the Middle East. Virtually everything from behavior and appearance to perception of life is influenced. Islam is part of the moral, political, intellectual, economic, and spiritual development of every believer.

To understand certain codes of conduct in the Middle East, you should familiarize yourself with the basics of the dominant religion. Islam is practiced by over 1.5 billion people worldwide. The word islam means “peace through submission to God,” while the word “Muslim” means “anyone or anything that submits itself to the will of God.” Five times a day, a formal prayer is done by everyone at specific hours. Typically, these are at dawn, in the middle of the day, late afternoon, dusk, and late evening. If scheduling meetings, you should expect your host to leave for short 10-15 minute periods to do this. You can find the hours of prayer for the day in a local newspaper.

A complete fast is expected during the month of Ramadan during all daylight hours, until sunset. This includes abstaining entirely from food and drink, and at times even water. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and the sick are not expected to fast. The exact dates of each year cannot be determined too far in advance due to the need to follow the Islamic lunar calendar. Avoid inviting your host out to dinner, lunch, or other activities that require food consumption in daylight hours during this time. Friday is the day of rest, and most meetings should be scheduled Sunday–Thursday. Alcohol and pork are illegal in most of the Middle East and it is advisable to avoid these substances when visiting.

Understanding Islam is essential to doing business in the Middle East. It is the key to success in relationship building.

According to Hofstede, high Uncertainty Avoidance means that change is not readily accepted. Situations that change suddenly are hazardous because the outcome cannot be easily predicted. Taking risks and making daring decisions is not common in the Middle East. This is why traditionally all business deals and negotiations take a long time, and require a strong relationship built on trust. Only a long-term commitment can demonstrate trustworthiness and reliability. Potential business activities will be carefully thought out and examined before any deal or decision is made. Getting to know your host takes time and you should not rush. Respect tradition and customs, and you will receive a warm and welcoming stay.

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