A series of useful lessons when doing business in the Middle East
I would like to begin this article mentioning several statistics related to the region I’ve been managing for the past 4 years, Middle East and Africa. Counting 72 countries and with a population estimated at 1,3 billion inhabitants, the total area of this territory is 3 times larger than the one of Europe.
Having that in mind, we can acknowledge the existence of a wide variety of cultures and religions who’ve made their mark on business practices in the region. Most people divide this area in 2 major categories: the Arab world and Africa, and if no other specific details are needed in regards to the exact division of this territory, this particular classification is more than correct.
However, when faced with the direct interaction with people living in these countries, things change dramatically and one can observe major cultural differences in terms of behavior, even when talking about people apparently belonging to the same group.
I want to share with you the most valuable lessons I’ve learned and put into practice during the 4 years experience I had in doing business with this particular part of the world, travelling and meeting customers face to face in various parts of the region.
- Find out as much detailed information as you can in regards to the country you are about to travel to, relating especially to boundaries: what they see as permitted or forbidden behavior in terms of meetings.
- Keep up with the latest news in terms of their economy, politics, major events that just passed or are about to happen. Read a least a brief summary linked to the history of the country/region you are about to visit (if the opportunity arises in a discussion, and your partner notices that you were interested in other aspects outside the business area, it will certainly be a positive step in further negotiation).
- Religion represents an important factor in the region (whether we are talking about Arab or African countries). You must always keep in mind religious rituals that are specific to the area/country/person that you are meeting(if possible) and make sure to act in accordance to this.
- Family – this is another important aspect in the daily life of this region – and I am referring to the broader meaning of the word “family”. You must respect this, respect the traditions and make sure not to do anything that would affect in any way the image of your contact, especially if they are considered to be a point of authority (whether this authority is earned through age, wisdom, wealth, etc.) and also you have other participants at that specific meeting.
- Make sure you earn your trust with the people you meet with – and build a personal relationship – as much as you have time. Try to invest more than the usual (after European standards) in building a personal relationship, as this surely will lead to a long term benefit.
- Always be prepared for a hard negotiation(specially for Arab countries). There is a long trading tradition and this shows that they are excellent negotiators. You should prepare in advance options that you can bring into discussion – should you not be able to offer what you are being asked for.
- Try to set up meetings with the key players that are as high as possible on the management chain. Authority is very well looked upon – and once the decision is taken by such a person, this will be something that will remain agreed.
- Time is… relative, as a well-known theory tells us – and in the Middle East you actually see this put to practice. You should expect your meetings to be delayed from the scheduled hour – but you must not take this personally if you come across big delays from the hour you have appointed. What is most important is reaching the desired outcome.
If I were to write a brief story – I would say that although I must thing “regionally” from a region-manager perspective – the customer interaction must always be prepared at a “local” level – going in to the extent of having personal input.
Establishing interpersonal relationships is very important, even in a rather short period of time, showing clear emotional intelligence – but starting with a very thorough preparation that bears in mind the region specific.
Once more, it is very important for you to respect the people you are meeting – starting from minor and general business ethics. However, it is far more important to respect their tradition, culture, their local rituals even if they may seem unusual(for an unaccustomed person with the local specific). These rules and rituals are part of their day-to-day lives and they have been so for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Last, but not least, you must learn to actively listen. As a well-known African saying goes: “the fool speaks, the wise-man listens”. Any extra information is an obvious gain – even if this might not have an immediate impact in the business relationship you establish with your counterpart.
Article written by : Gabriel Hagiescu, Sr Sales Manager and Middle East Expert