A Guide to Business Travel in the Middle East

4 Min Read

Going to a new country on business is always daunting, what if you say or do something to cause offence? With my simple guidelines for business travel in the Middle East, you’ll be on your way to achieve what you set out to achieve: a mutually respectful business relationship.

Friends and Partners

One of the key points to remember about doing business in the Middle East is that in the Arab world there is very little distinction between the personal and the business world.

Most Arabs will want to do business with people they consider potential friends, so meetings traditionally start with a period of small talk in which questions are asked about your private life. In return you should ask after your associate’s family (although avoid asking explicitly about specific female members, as this may cause offence). Most of all, expect to make personal connections with business associates during your time in the Middle East.

Be Aware of the Muslim Calendar

There is very little point arranging meetings only to find out that you’ve arrived during the holy month of Ramadan when very little work is done. So make sure you are aware of what festivals are coming up in the Muslim Calendar before booking your trip.

It is also worth noting that in Islam Friday is the holy day, so in many Middle Eastern countries weekends run from Friday to Saturday instead of Saturday to Sunday as they do in the West.

Polite Greetings

Of course you should make an effort to master a few phrases of greeting in any country you visit for business, but this will go down particularly well when you travel in the Middle East.

The general Arabic greeting is pronounced as-salaam alaykum and means ‘peace be upon you’. This should be met with the response wa akaykum as-salaam, ‘and peace be upon you too’.

Using Arabic will help to create a personal, friendly connection with the person you are about to do business with, which is always a good idea in the Middle East.

Handshakes are also an important part of the greeting process in this region and it’s worth bearing in mind that they last longer here. If in doubt, wait for the person who’s hand you are shaking to withdraw before you do. If you are meeting a woman it’s advisable to wait and see if she offers her hand before you do anything as some women avoid physical contact.

Meeting Etiquette

In much of the Arab world business is carried out face to face, so it is important to arrange physical meetings if you want to get something done. Emails and phone calls are fine for making arrangements but meetings are where the actual decisions are made.

That being said, arranging a meeting in the Middle East can be tricky as things tend to be more laid back and last-minute than they are here. The trick is not to arrange a meeting too far in advance, and make sure you confirm that it is still going ahead just before you fly.

Once you are there, remember that punctuality is viewed very differently. It is not unusual for an Arabic associate to turn up to a meeting up to half an hour late, but don’t be tempted to do the same as your punctuality is a mark of respect to your host.

Expect constant interruptions during a meeting from other members of staff, phone calls or checking emails on smart phones. This is not thought of as rude, so don’t be offended.

As part of a society in which trading and bartering has played a strong role, expect Arab business partners to drive a hard bargain. Negotiations are slow and tiring, but are all part of the process.

Hospitality is key to Arabic cultures so remember to accept refreshments, gifts or invitations accept graciously.

Dress To Impress

There is no rigid dress code in the Middle East. For men a formal business suit, preferably in a dark colour, is suitable. If you are a woman, it is wise to make sure you are covered up; wear something with long sleeves and trousers or a skirt which covers your ankles.

Be aware, Arab societies believe that your appearance says a lot about who you are, particularly in terms of social status, so an expensive suit and good shoes would be a wise investment.

Social Taboos

Crossing your legs, giving a thumbs up or showing the soles of your shoes or feet are all considered rude gestures so make sure you avoid these.

Don’t Forget Insurance

Whether it’s a meeting being cancelled at the last minute or eating something that disagrees with you, you never know exactly what’s going to happen when you travel in the Middle East. That’s why it’s always a good idea to make sure your entire trip is covered with appropriate travel insurance.

There is so much to remember on business travel in the Middle East, let your insurance be one less thing you need to worry about.

Patrick Chong is the Managing Director of InsureMore, an award-winning team of specialists in global single trip, family and annual travel insurance for those planning to travel in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, USA, Australia and anywhere else in the world. Besides offering great deals on travel insurance, Patrick also collects and shares the best free travel competitions to help his clients get the most out of their holidays.