Understanding the MENA Region

How to do the business in the Middle East | The Complete Guide Part 3.

Maintaining relationships and not damaging them is a fundamental long-term goal. In the previous articles, we dealt with the influence of religion and culture in the Middle East and North Africa. We also explored how to manage time and build bonds in a manner appropriate for the region. In this last piece, we will try to delve more into social taboos. By considering what to do and what not to do, you will hopefully avoid having your ship sink before it has sailed. 

Proper greetings

It seems evident that people from different regions will have different social norms. If you are running a business in a uniquely different region, do not expect that the way you were raised to behave in your environment will necessarily be received with open arms. Indeed, the people of the MENA region have “dos” and “don’ts” of their own. In a more conservative country, you will be expected not to greet a member of the opposite sex physically. Even in a less conservative country or area, do not impose a handshake or a greeting kiss, unless the person you are dealing with initiates the physical greeting. Often, simply smiling and putting your right hand to the top of your heart would be enough. When dealing with persons of the same sex, however, there are no restrictions. A firm handshake and a smile, followed by asking about their well-being and that of their family, is how you properly greet without offending.

Do not shy away from direct eye contact

While many westerners consider prolonged eye contact to be aggressive or uncomfortable, it is not the case in the MENA region. People in the region might “stare” at you out of curiosity, friendliness or admiration. Avoiding direct eye contact with the person you are talking to might be perceived as arrogant, to show a lack of interest or indicate a deceptive nature. However, keep in mind that men take great offense if their female relatives (wife, daughter, sister, cousin) are given overt eye to eye contact. This attention to connecting with an associate is, of course, the standard behavior in general interactions. However, during business meetings, things may work differently, as your business counterpart may be checking his/her phone or laptop while communicating with you. Since meetings in the MENA region have a different flow; diverted attention is not meant to be offensive.

Learn more about social norms by visiting:  Understanding MENA part 1

Saving face

Do not be direct if you disagree. As previously mentioned, people from the region are sensitive about their image and honor. When discussing a business agreement where you feel that the content might not work in your favor, do not be firm and straightforward in communicating your point of view. Arabs and North Africans do not appreciate being embarrassed in public or within a group of people. If you make them feel that they are losing face, they will take it very personally, and no positive outcome or a breakdown in negotiations may be the result. Adopt a more indirect approach in disagreeing, making sure you follow the meeting up with a one-on-one conversation if you are not satisfied.

“Your word is your bond”

Accepting a person at their word is a principle that is more prevalent in the Middle East than in North Africa. When dealing with an Arab, you must be very careful when making a promise. Think carefully first, about whether you can keep your promise. Arabs give more importance to verbal contracts than written ones. For an Arab, a written agreement is just a formality. Breaking a commitment will be considered a dishonorable act that might tarnish your reputation forever. Holding a person to account is one of the attributes Arabs use to determine what kind of a person you are, and not just as a businessman or businesswoman.

Arrive on time

Closely related to the importance of keeping your word is the convention of timeliness. If a meeting schedule is at a particular time, do not arrive late. Middle Easterners and North Africans do not view time in the same way as in the West. While they may not show up on time themselves, they will expect you to do so, as a sign of respect. Therefore, embrace patience, and a book, while enjoying the beverages provided, and do not let the inconsistency bother you.

The MENA region is a challenge to anyone who wishes to venture into the region. The solution is to consider how specific values prioritize over others. The task will have a positive outcome if enough effort is put in to doing research and shifting towards building bonds and earning trust rather than adherence to pure pragmatism. Be patient, flexible and respectful, and you will be among those who rise above the challenge.

If you haven't already, please visit the following links to learn more about the Middle East and North Africa:

Understanding MENA part 1
Understanding MENA part 2

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