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Business in Arab World

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The total population of the Arab region was estimated at 300 million in 2002, or 4.8 per cent of the population of the world.
Source: United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision Population Database (United Nations Population Division, 2003). Available at: http://esa.un.org/unpp/.
Few Facts on the Arabic language:
• Arabic is one of the world’s oldest languages
• Arabic is spoken in the Middle East, with speakers found in 23 countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco and Egypt.
• Arabic is the language of the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Hence Arabic is widely used throughout the Muslim world

Business Meeting with Arab Companies
Sometimes when trying to set up meeting dates with your clients you will find that their answer is something like “Whenever you are in the area gives us a call”. Don’t interpret this as a sign of lack of interest in your business. It is equal to an answer that sets a specific date and time. Remember that business is done differently in that region. I prefer to describe it as a very relaxed and flexible system. If you will be meeting with the business owner or key decision maker, the hosting company might suggest the afternoon period. The reason for this is that some business owners work in a government office during the morning period and manage their businesses in the afternoon. Let your clients know in advance that you will be visiting them and ask them to inform you what they might need before the meeting (catalogues, samples, prices, shipping costs, etc.). This way they will have enough time to evaluate the product and you have contributed to speeding up negotiations in an acceptable manner. Once you are meeting with them, it is a very good chance to ask for their feedback. Unless your product is one of a kind, they most likely have compared it with its competitors and they will use the information to discuss pricing.

Business Meetings with Arab companies
Sometimes when trying to set up meeting dates with your clients you will find that their answer is something like “Whenever you are in the area gives us a call”. Don’t interpret this as a sign of lack of interest in your business. It is equal to an answer that sets a specific date and time. Remember that business is done differently in that region. I prefer to describe it as a very relaxed and flexible system. If you will be meeting with the business owner or key decision maker, the hosting company might suggest the afternoon period. The reason for this is that some business owners work in a government office during the morning period and manage their businesses in the afternoon. Let your clients know in advance that you will be visiting them and ask them to inform you what they might need before the meeting (catalogues, samples, prices, shipping costs, etc.). This way they will have enough time to evaluate the product and you have contributed to speeding up negotiations in an acceptable manner. Once you are meeting with them, it is a very good chance to ask for their feedback. Unless your product is one of a kind, they most likely have compared it with its competitors and they will use the information to discuss pricing.

Doing Business – Meeting and Greeting
The traditional Arabic greeting you will hear is ‘Asalamu alaykum’ (peace be with you). As a non-Arabic you would not be expected to use it, but if you did you would receive the reply ‘wa alaykum salam’ (and peace be with you).
When doing business in the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. Islamic etiquette recommends that one waits for the other to withdraw their hand first before doing the same. Always use the right hand. Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere. Holding hands among men is common and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West.
Arabs are fairly informal with names when doing business and generally address people by their first names. John Smith will be addressed as Mr. John. Arab titles of note are: Sheikh (an old man, scholar, leader), Sayyid (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) and Hajji (one who has performed the pilgrimage).

Doing Business – Gender
The roles of men and women are far more defined in the Arab culture. Interaction between the sexes is still frowned upon in certain arenas. However, when doing business in the Middle East it is not uncommon to come across women.
If you are introduced to a woman as a male, it is advisable to wait and see if a hand is extended. If it is not, then do not try to shake hands. Avoid touching and prolonged eye contact with women.

Doing Business – Business is Personal
Many Westerners that have lived or worked in the Middle East might use the words chaotic, disorganised and frustrating when discussing doing business there. Although this is a matter of perception, it is true that business runs on very different tracks to business in the West.
The Arabs do not separate professional and personal life. Doing business revolves much more around personal relationships, family ties, trust and honour. There is a tendency to prioritise personal matters above all else. It is therefore crucial that business relationships are built on mutual friendship and trust.
A consequence of this mentality is the system known as ‘wasta’. If you have friends or contacts in the right places then rules can be bent or things done more quickly. The system works on the basis that favours are reciprocated and never forgotten. Although it may seem biased, it is something that should be exploited when doing business in the Middle East.

Doing Business – The Spoken Word
The Middle Eastern culture places more value on someone’s word as opposed to a written agreement. A person’s word is connected to their honour. Contracts are viewed as memorandums of understanding rather than binding, fixed agreements. Be sure to promise only things you can deliver. Failure to do so will result in loss of honour.

Doing Business – Meetings & Negotiations
Meetings should not be made too far in advance as changes in personal circumstances may impact your appointment. Once an appointment has been made, confirm it verbally with the person you will meet a few days before.
Initial meetings are all about relationship building. Building trust and establishing compatibility are key requisites for doing business in the Middle East. One should engage in conversation and try to get to know the ‘person’ you are doing business with.
Meetings can be chaotic. Always be prepared to exercise patience. Phone calls are taken during meetings and people may enter the meeting room unannounced and proceed to discuss their own agendas.

Meetings are circular in nature. They do not follow a linear pattern and are not structured upon agendas or targets. Issues are raised as and when.
Punctuality is expected of foreigners. Although the Arabs place a high emphasis on punctuality they rarely practice it themselves. In fact, if Arabs want to stress that a set time must be adhered to they use the term ‘mow’id inglizee’ – literally, ‘English meeting’. However, if you are running late do not panic as polite excuses will be accepted.

If negotiating, remember the Arabs were a trading people and are excellent negotiators. Haggling takes places everywhere, whether at the shop or in the board room. Decisions are made slowly. Bureaucratic formalities tend to add to delays. Do not use high pressure tactics as they will be counter-productive.

Doing Business in the Middle East
The above few examples of cross cultural differences in business practice and culture highlight the areas where business people can face challenges when doing business in the Middle East. Cross cultural understanding is an important tool for any international business person, company or organisation to acquire when doing business abroad

Advertising & Marketing to the Arab Market
It is very helpful to provide your clients with literature that is produced in their own language, especially if the literature will be passed by your overseas partners to their customers.
You can solicit the help of your overseas local agent when producing such materials or ask him to recommend to you a local advertising/translation agency to handle the job.
If you intend on using a local translation service provider (i.e. a company residing in your area), be sure that they fully understand the targeted language, audience and market.
Producing a word by word translation of your current local product literature will not necessarily prove to be an effective equivalent of the original and in some cases might yield the opposite of your intended message. Every market has its own marketing and advertising rules and every audience is approached differently.
I am sure that you have heard about some companies resulting to changing the name of their products when introduced to a foreign market because an exact translation proved to be ineffective or in some cases offensive.
Advertisement produced for the Arabian countries should avoid using sexual appeal or sexual innuendoes in its message. It should be conservative in content and appearance and does not present any social values or situations that contradict with the Arabian culture or Islam.
In almost all the Arab countries advertisement should not directly or explicitly contain comparison between two different brands for the same type of products. Message should place more emphasis on the quality and functionality of the product.

Conservative behaviour
In public, Arabs behave conservatively. Display of affection between spouses is nonexistent.
It is a private society and display of ones feelings to their spouses is kept private.
You will also notice that laughter and joking in public is toned down, which is not the case in private gatherings.
Arguments between spouses, friends, and people in general are also kept private or conducted in a way that guarantees no one else is aware of it.
Issues between spouses are kept very private especially from their kids. Spousal problems are rarely shared with others even close friends.
In public, acting and appearing in a manner that may attract attention be it via loud talking, out of the ordinary clothes, hairstyles, etc; is looked upon as a sign of imbalance in behaviour and character.
Although dressing and acting in a conservative manner is the norm, in recent years in few Arab countries in certain tourist areas this has changed.
Privacy
Because of the importance of privacy in the Arabian society, houses are built with big solid walls that maintain privacy from street traffic and the neighbours.
One of the most important considerations in building a house is the guarantee that the residents of the house can’t see their neighbours from any part of the house, thus insuring the privacy of the neighbours.
When I visit the house of an Arabian relative or friend, the standing position I will take next to the house door should insure that when the door is open I can’t see the inside of the house.
Furthermore, I will not go inside until my host signals me to do so by extending his right hand with his palm up saying “Tafaddal”, which means “come in”.
When you encounter someone who you know very well and they are accompanied by others that you do not know; keep your conversation limited to subjects that are socially accepted and do not divulge any experiences, situations or subjects that happened with, by, or between you and the person you know even if jokingly until you know the level of comfort and sharing that your friend has with the ones accompanying him/her.
Dewaniah, the gathering place
In every Arabian house, especially in the GCC region, there is a room called “Dewaniah” or “Majlis” for guests gatherings. Most of these Dewaniahs are for male visitors only.
The Dewaniah is usually located close to the outside main entrance, away from the rest of the house.
Women guests gather in a room inside the house and sometimes get to their gathering room from an outside entrance specifically assigned for female visitors.
In some parts of the Arab region men and women who are not directly blood related to each other or not married to each other don’t mix. That’s why there are often separate guest gathering rooms for both genders in the same house. In some Arab houses this rule of gender separation is not followed.
Some Dewaniahs open on a daily basis and others once weekly. This regular gathering is a chance for relatives, friends, and invited guests to check on each other and converse in many subjects. It is a form of socializing where people communicate the latest news about other relatives, economy, business, sports, politics, etc.
Tea, coffee, and sometimes a light snack are served.
In most Arabian & Islamic countries, the following items are forbidden by religion:
Alcohol
Pork That’s an insult
The sole of your feet/shoe should not point directly toward someone else

When invited to a Dewaniah
If you are invited to a Dewaniah, you are not expected to bring food, drinks, or gifts.
Muslims pray 5 times daily where each prayer lasts for about 15 minutes: at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prayers are usually held at the Islamic worship places called “Mosques”. Regular gathering in Dewaniahs usually takes place after nightfall prayer and sometimes between the sunset and the nightfall prayers.
Upon entering the house as you approach the Dewaniah notice the Dewaniah’s door. If shoes and sandals were left at the door by other guests, then take off your shoes. It is customary when entering a Dewaniah or an office to greet everyone there by saying “Alsalamo-Alikom”, which means “peace be with you” and it is the equivalent of saying “hello”. The reply to this greeting is “Wa’alikom Alsalam”.
Once inside the Dewaniah, everyone will stand up to greet you and shake your hand. Start with the person standing on your right side or the one who is approaching you. If you are a first time visitor or elderly, most likely your host and the attendants will offer you a seat at the head of the Dewaniah as a sign of respect and honor.
Some Dewaniahs are furnished with couches; traditional ones don’t have couches and attendants sit on the floor. The floor is covered with Persian rugs and against the walls of the Dewaniah there are pillows to rest your back against. Notice that in both modern and traditional Dewaniahs, attendants are seated in a circle to ensure that no one is facing someone’s else back. Also, remember the rule that the soles of your feet should not point directly toward someone else.
In office or Dewaniah visits you might be offered Arabian coffee, which is served in small cups without sugar or milk. The coffee server will keep filling up your cup until you signal that you are done by slightly shaking your empty cup and either saying “Bass, Shokrann”, which means “no more, thank you”, or by covering the cup with the palm of your hand while returning the cup to the coffee server.
Remember that you should always use your right hand. It is advisable that you accept at least one cup of coffee as a way of honoring this traditional hospitality.

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