Westerners traveling to the Middle East are often surprised by just how different the culture is from what they’re used to — and from what they’re expecting. That’s why it’s important, when doing business there, to keep these cultural differences in mind and practice proper etiquette and protocol.
Dress conservatively, no matter your gender
You must always dress modestly and conservatively when doing business in the Middle East. Do not be revealing in any way. Cover shoulders, arms and legs, and do not wear open-toed shoes. Men should wear dark suits, as it is considered more professional than lighter colors. While it is not necessary for non-Muslim women to wear a hijab (headscarf), it is good to keep one on hand. Wear suits or dresses with hems well below the knee.
Depending on your location, be aware that you might be approached by security guards or other locals if they deem your clothing inappropriate. If that happens to you, remain calm, politely apologize and go change into something more modest. Thus, it is helpful to pack a couple versions of some of your most conservative clothing so you are always able to make a change if necessary.
Know the proper greeting
In the Middle East, one must understand that Islam permeates all levels of society. In all settings, the traditional Islamic greeting is “Assalamu alaikum” (peace be with you). Non-Muslims are not expected to use it, but if you do reply, say, “wa alaikum salam,” which means “and peace be with you.”
It is common to shake hands (with the right hand) when meeting. Be aware that a handshake can last a long time because Islamic etiquette recommends that a person wait for the other person to withdraw his or her hand first.
Follow the gender rules
Because gender roles are more defined in the Arab culture, business between the sexes is still not common and is frowned upon. However, if you are a man being introduced to a woman in business, it is advisable to wait to see if she extends her hand in greeting. If she does not, then don’t try to shake hands. Men should also avoid prolonged eye contact with women.
Don’t rely on written contracts
More value is placed on a person’s spoken commitment, which is connected to honor, than on written documents. Contracts are not viewed as binding, fixed agreements; rather, they are seen as memorandums of understanding. Thus, it is important to be aware of what you say in a business setting and to promise only what you know you can deliver.
Don’t talk shop in social situations
Business in the Middle East is based on trust and respect. Thus, business relationships are built on mutual friendship and trust. However, you must keep the two separate and not discuss business at in social situations.
Don’t expect cocktails
Observant Muslims do not drink alcohol. While not available in restaurants, alcohol is sometimes served in Middle Eastern hotels. If alcohol is not offered, do not to ask for it. Also, never give alcohol as a thank-you gift.