By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine
The Arab culture has always had a tradition of trade and commerce, however it has become an even more important business center. With the rise of globalization and the increase in demand for Middle East energy, the outside world is drawn ever more towards Arab business ventures. These undertakings offer great rewards but only to those who can successfully network and engage their counterparts using cultural sensitivity. Initially, a newcomer to Arab culture may feel overwhelmed by its complexity, however with a little patience and diligence one can succeed in the Arab business culture.
The most important aspect to remember about the Arab business culture is that it is conducted on a highly personal level. In contrast to the United States where there is more of a tendency to separate personal relationships from business, in the Arab culture they are viewed as absolutely essential. Arabs like to know the people with whom they do business. Trust in their business partner is crucial. Consequently, an initial meeting with an Arab representative may not have anything to do with the actual business deal. More often than not, and much to the consternation of the American counterpart, the meeting will be circular and not linear. Put quite simply, there may not be an actual agenda. Topics may just come up sporadically. The meeting will be more social and involve questions about family, as family is central in Arab culture. It is at this stage where the Arab counterpart is simply trying to get to know the American businessperson. It cannot be stressed enough how important this stage is. If there is no trust, there will be no deal.
Whenever meetings are scheduled, they should not be made too far in advance of the meeting date. It is very common for Arab businessmen to have to make sudden changes in schedule. In addition, it is advisable to reconfirm the meeting a few days in advance to ensure that everything is set for the appointment. If you have invited the Arab representative to your office, always have food and tea ready to offer. It is best to have it ready without asking if it is wanted. This action demonstrates hospitality, which is another important aspect of Arab culture.
The way of greeting your Arab counterpart is very important. The most common greeting is a handshake, which can last a little longer than in Western culture. Very often it is respectful not to withdraw the hand first, which is the cause of the prolonged handshake. Also make good eye contact, as this is another sign of respect. Forms of address are rather informal. Arabs tend to address the person by adding “Mr.” to the first name. For example, Adam Jones will be addressed as “Mr. Adam.” If you know that your Arab counterpart is Muslim, it would be good to greet him in the traditional way with the words “Asalamu alaykum” (peace be unto you). The reply is “wa alaykum salam,” which is basically the same meaning. The fact that you learned this phrase will most likely impress your Arab counterpart because it demonstrates that you made the extra effort to address him in his own language.
As touched on previously, negotiations can be somewhat nebulous. Time is not measured in the same way as in the West. Negotiations may seem to drag on and then suddenly everything will be approved immediately. Therefore, great patience and flexibility must be maintained throughout. Also, be prepared to haggle. Arabic culture has a long history and tradition of trade and negotiation. Haggling is a part of this tradition, so take it in stride. As long as calmness and clarity are maintained, everything should be fine.
Please bear in mind that in Arab culture the spoken word is much more important than the written word. Anything promised verbally must be upheld or the person’s honor and trust will be lost. Due to this concept, Arabs view contracts as summaries of what has already been agreed upon verbally. This view is very different from American business culture where the written word is deemed more important. The moral of the story is to be sure that something is feasible before it is promised.
While the Arab mindset is somewhat complex and different from the American one, once one actually gets inside it the differences give way to similarities. The concepts of mutual respect, honor, and family are things to which everyone can relate. The key is to be culturally sensitive enough to see that they are merely being expressed in different ways. Once this idea is taken into account, there should be no hindrance to succeeding in the Arab business culture.
Biography of Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine, Founder, CEO and President, MasterWord Services, Inc.
As a graduate of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, Mila started her company with a vision of seamlessly connecting people across any language, any time, any culture so she understands the complexities of the global marketplace and excels at providing language solutions based on creative thinking and strategic planning.