Contributed by Diane Marcus
There are many Islamic countries in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. You will find that customs will vary from country to country. Therefore, do not attempt to travel in any Islamic country without doing research. If you know of anyone who has personally been to one of these Middle Eastern or North African countries, it is a great idea to check with them first. Next check for articles written on the internet, buy books about the culture of these countries, and as a last resort check with the American Embassy in that country before traveling there. It would be a great loss of time and money if you traveled for business and did not get a sale because of a faux pas which could easily have been avoided.
People that live outside the United States and come to this country to do business, have hired an outside firm to thoroughly explain the way we do business here. They spend much time learning our language and customs. We should do likewise.
Traveling to an Islamic country will be the most culturally different area compared to other parts of the world that you may ever travel to. The first thing to know is that the Islamic religion permeates the country including the business area. Muslims need to pray five times a day. If this happens when you are in their company, you will need to be aware of this and be very respectful. You are not expected to pray but should just sit still and wait until they are finished.
Greetings and Introductions
When you are introduced to someone, realize that their handshake will not be as firm as an American handshake and it may last much longer. Do not be the one to end the handshake first. You may be greeted with the phrase, “And peace be with you.” Americans like to “keep their space” but in the Middle East, people may want to get much closer. You will want to back up as it is our first impulse, but this is considered rude, so stay in place. A man should never extend his hand first to a woman to shake hands. You would only extend your hand to hers if she offers her hand to you.
When you present your business card, always do so with your right hand. You should never use your left hand to present a card. Take a good look at the card and slowly put it in a card holder in your suit pocket, never in your pants pocket. If it is possible, have the back side of your card translated into Arabic before you travel.
American businessmen should never wear a short sleeve shirt or wear shorts. During the day and evening it is appropriate to wear a long sleeved shirt or a suit.
Women should never wear a short sleeved or sleeveless blouse. In some countries it is better to wear a pantsuit and in others a suit would be preferred. A woman will have to wear an abaya or a head covering. It would be best to get one before you go and practice wearing it. Make sure your hair does not show. You may need this as soon as you get off the plane.
In Middle Eastern and Northern African countries, time doesn’t have the same value as it does in the United States. Although you are expected to be on time, don’t be surprised if your client shows up late. If this happens, do not show that you are irritated and offended. After all, the reason you are there is to get the sale. Being late is part of their culture and just accept that it may happen.
You should never look like you are in a hurry to do business. You may be wined and dined all week long before business is discussed. Be aware that everything you say or do from the time you get off the plane, you are being watched and they are deciding if they want to do business with you.
Avoid looking at your watch no matter how late in the evening it is getting. You do not want to give any impression that you are in a hurry to wrap up business.
Alcohol is forbidden in Islamic countries. Do not attempt to put any small bottles of liquor in your suitcase or in your pockets. You will be stopped at customs, you could be arrested, and you will be lucky if you are allowed to contact the American Embassy for assistance. You will be wasting a lot of your time and your company’s money if you do not follow this guideline.
Invitation to a Home
If you are asked to the home of your client, consider it a great honor. Be careful about bringing a gift. Definitely check on this to be sure. You normally would not bring flowers or anything at all.
You may be asked to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Do not refuse this request. Shoes are considered very dirty. Please refrain from putting your feet up on the furniture. Never show them the soles of your feet as this is considered a great insult.
If you are offered any food or drink, do not refuse as this is also considered very rude. If you are invited for dinner, be aware that dinner time may start very late. You should leave a little food on the plate. Doing this will show your host that you are full and you do not want any more food.
When you finally get down to business, be aware that bartering is very common in that part of the world. Be prepared to go back and forth on price a bit but do not overdo it. Bartering is expected but going overboard here is another deal killer.
There are many countries in the Middle East and customs will vary from one to the other and they will even vary within the country. It is absolutely necessary to do your research before you leave the United States. Hopefully the travel department in your company can help out with this information. If you do not have a travel department, check with some local travel agencies. If they do not know, check with the American Embassy in that country before you leave.
Your company has spent a lot of money sending you so far away. It takes a huge amount of time to travel to the country. You may want to allow more time than in most other countries. This is because they are just not in a hurry to do business with you. Your clients want to know all about you before doing business with you. Everything you say or do is being watched. Following these guidelines will decrease your chance of making a faux pas and increase your chances of getting their business. It will also differentiate you from those who have not taken the time to find out this information.
Keep in mind that it is never appropriate to bring up or try to discuss the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Avoid this topic all together.
Finally, if there is any chance you can learn any Arabic at all before you travel that will be another plus. However, if you cannot speak the language well, do not try. Find out ahead of time if you will need a translator. If you do, your company should pay this expense. This should be set up ahead of time. There is a chance you will not need one as English is taught in their schools. However, do not leave this last detail to chance.