At the moment I am working with several clients and customers from various parts of the Middle East. I never set out to do so but it seems that my personality and attitude fits in well with many of theirs and their way of working (or perhaps I’ve been able to easily embrace their culture) hence why I am interacting regularly from people originating from this region.
Reading around the topic…
I have also been reading extensively on cross-cultural management for part of my Executive MBA and it’s been really interesting comparing the national cultures, values and beliefs as described by academic gurus such as Hofstede, Trompenaars and Hall with my own personal experiences over the years and to compare and contrast the way in which attitudes and behaviours differ between the UK and, as Hofstede calls it, the Arab world. And although I acknowledge that we can’t categorise anyone so simplistically and deem their behaviour purely down to their culture, it can give a useful starting point for understanding some aspects of that customer, partner or even competitor.
So with this in mind here are some culture related lessons I’ve learnt along the way which may serve you well when developing business in this region:
1. Learn to embrace flexibility
Would you like to set off on a business trip to the Middle East with all your meetings lined up and a set agenda?
Maybe so but in all reality this is not going to go to plan!
There will be changes in schedules, even at the very last minute due to something urgent cropping up or maybe your client requested to see you for an hour or two but then spontaneously invites you to lunch or dinner, which would be rude to decline but then throws your timings for the next meeting into disarray.
Arab attitude to time is very flexible and polychronic, meaning they don’t view it as linear but more cyclical.
To succeed in this region you therefore have to go with an open attitude towards timings, insert some slack into your schedule if you can and be prepared to adapt in a positive manner.
2. Understand the hierarchy and work with it
Lines of authority and hierarchy are widely upheld in this region and therefore it is important to work out the levels of seniority of those you can dealing with and give the appropriate respect, including the use of titles and decision making status.
I learnt the hard way with one customer when I approached the Emirati manager within that business about a proposed initiative, without following the hierarchical structure and gaining permission to do so from the Indian business owner in the first place.
Needless to say he reminded me who was in charge and I’ve not made the same mistake again!
3. Relationship over task
Getting things done in the Middle East takes longer. Fact.
This is because higher value is placed on the relationships by those from this region than the task itself, which is very different from our British achievement driven culture.
Therefore you have to accept that if you want to do business here, it will take time.
In fact it’s taken over 6 months to get a first recent order in Jordan for a client. But a trusting relationship has had to be developed and this won’t happen overnight, particularly when a lot of the Arab world don’t like email all that well either.
Phone call, face to face, Skype calls and even what’s app seem to be much more effective once you’ve engaged with them. So use these communication methods wherever possible.
Furthermore as part of this relationship building you have to develop an openness to talking about your life beyond the professional dimension to include family, personal interests, hobbies etc so learn to accept this and see it as part of the relationship building process.
In my opinion we can never grow to become great business leaders until we actively strive to embrace behaviours and attitudes that we feel most uncomfortable and unnatural to us.
Above all it is our tolerance to learn new things and to look beyond our own meaning and interpretation of the world which allow us to be successful in developing business all over the world.
I wish everyone lots of luck in their international ventures!
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