Arabic dress differs greatly in many parts of the Arab World. In Lebanon and Syria, Western-style clothing is commonplace. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the ghutra (head cloth) and thobe (long, generally white, flowing robe) are the standard.
It is not necessary for Westerners to dress in traditional Arabic outfits. Few Arab business people would expect this or even desire it. It is, however, necessary to make sure that one’s own outfit is customarily modest. While levels of modesty vary from one part of the Arab World to the next.
Taking time to understand the religion, politics and social structure of the Arabic world is the first step to understanding the basis of the proper business etiquette of this region:
Islam: This is the primary religion practiced throughout the Arab world, heavily influencing day-to-day social customs, as well as proper Arabian business etiquette. Drinking alcohol and eating pork/shellfish/birds are forbidden by Islamic custom. While consuming caffeine and nicotine are also discouraged, neither is absolutely forbidden.These precise restrictions demonstrate the way in which the Arab world privileges compliance, order, rules and structure.
While more specific aspects of the Islamic commercial law may affect your business transactions (particularly if you are trying to market a new product in this region), the general themes defining this political system are conservatism, masculinity, compliance and tradition. Punishments are strict for rule breakers, so following the rules (rather than bucking the system) is the way to gain honor and respect in the Arab world.
Business Meeting Etiquette
From your initial greeting to your final exit, here are some general Arabic business etiquette tips that will help you demonstrate to your potential new partners that you have cultural understanding and awareness:
Greetings: Rather than “hello” or “good morning,” greet your Arab partner by saying “Assalamo Alaikum,” which translates to “May peace be upon you and may God’s blessings be with you.” This is the traditional Islamic greeting exchanged in Arab countries.
Planning: Since Islamic principles and culture value structure and order, make sure that you have a well-defined plan for your business meeting. If possible, write up an agenda that you can distribute to your Arab business partner. Creating, sticking to and announcing your plan will demonstrate not only your organization and business savvy but also your knowledge of and respect for Arabic business etiquette.
Translations: In addition to having Arabic interpreters at your business meeting, you will also want an translation for each document you will use during your meeting. Having an accurate Arabic translation for each document will facilitate communication with your business partners, and show that you are willing to go the extra mile for them.
What to Avoid: Given the Islamic dietary restrictions, avoid ordering or serving meat, pork, fish or fowl to your Arabian business partners. If you are choosing a restaurant for a business meeting, be sure there are plenty of vegetarian options available.
Similarly, refrain from smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and consuming caffeine during your meeting. All of these practices are also frowned upon in Islamic culture and, therefore, go against proper Arabic business meeting etiquette. Other Business Etiquette Tips Specific to Different Arab Countries.
Aside from the above aspects of Arabian business etiquette, some countries in this region have their own unique nuances. Here is an outline of proper business etiquette specific to particular Arab countries:
Bahrain: Smiling and direct eye contact are essential parts of proper business etiquette in Bahrain. Similarly, because friendly social interactions are valued in this Arabic country, don’t be surprised if your Bahrain partner gives and expects a kiss on the cheek upon greeting you! Read more about Bahrain business etiquette.
Kuwait: Kuwaitis prefer to do business with people they know, so don’t be surprised if you need to conduct multiple business meetings before your transaction is finished. Since Kuwaitis frown upon impatience, showing you are compliant and willing to interact socially prior to launching into business is a fundamental part of Kuwaiti business etiquette.
Oman: Business meetings are formal affairs to which attendees must wear suits and ties. While English is primarily spoken at Oman business meetings, proper etiquette demands that foreigners use a few key phrases out of respect for your business partners. In addition, those conducting business meetings in Oman also value punctuality and put a heavy reliance on business cards – so be sure to bring plenty if you are conducting business in this country! In addition, do not forget to have your business cards and other important business documents translated into.
Qatar : It is offensive and improper business etiquette to ask members of the opposite sex to meet alone with you in a closed room. If necessary, make sure that both genders are present at any Qatar meeting you conduct.
Saudi Arabia: If conducting business in Saudi Arabia, non-Saudis must obtain official government permission before entering and exiting the country. Once in the country, Westerners are subject to Saudi Islamic law, which bans alcohol, drugs, porn and pork. Unfortunately, some Westerners are unaware of this fact and, consequently, are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia while intending to do business.
UAE (including Dubai): The lobbies of large hotels are the preferred venue for business meetings in the UAE, as these rooms limit distraction and give attendants easy access to refreshments. Similarly, having Arabic translations of any documents used during a business meeting is considered to be part of proper Arabic business etiquette.
Yemen: Business meetings are lavish, sumptuous affairs called qat. For qat, attendees are expected to bring tobacco and coals for smoking. Smoking will commence with the start of any meeting, and pipes are constantly passed among attendees. It is customary to only take the pipe with your right hand, and it is considered rude to keep the pipe for too long.