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How to Conduct Yourself on a Business Trip to the Middle East

In the Middle East, religion plays a significant role, which can have a great impact on your business-trip conduct. Middle East business-trip behavior depends on the country you visit, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Language: Several languages are spoken in the Middle East. English is widely used in business throughout the Middle East and as the second language in most schools.

  • Appropriate dress: In Israel, business casual is acceptable in a wide range of businesses. In Turkey and Arabic countries, go conservative, with dark suits and subdued ties. Businesswomen still have a hard time in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, in particular), although less so now than ten years ago. Women must keep their knees and elbows covered at all times; a high neckline is required.

  • Greeting rituals: Business and personal greetings are given enthusiastically, with a smile and direct eye contact. Men shake hands and kiss each other on the cheek.

    Titles in the Middle East are important. Always use full names and all appropriate titles upon your first meeting. Use the honorific “Mister” and any academic or political title and the first name. Arab titles are “Sheikh” (an elderly man, leader, or scholar), “Sayyid” (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), and “Hajji” (one who has performed the pilgrimage).

  • Handling meetings: Morning meetings generally are preferred in the Middle East. Be aware of religious holidays before scheduling meetings, and in Muslim countries, don’t request meetings on Friday, which is a day of rest.

    Meetings can be long, chaotic, and even pointless to an American sensibility. People in the Middle East love to talk, discuss, wrangle, and argue. If no decision is made on the spot, don’t be disturbed. The decision will come later — sometimes weeks or months later.

  • Dining and entertaining: Across the Middle East, hospitality is a means of demonstrating generosity, power, and wealth.

  • Giving and receiving gifts: Gift-giving is common in Middle Eastern culture, though gift-giving isn’t the norm in Saudi Arabia unless you’re invited to someone’s home. Always reciprocate a gift with equal quality and value.

    In Jewish homes, a gift of flowers to the host is preferred, but gifts to the host are frowned on in Muslim homes.

  • Social taboos: Don’t ask personal questions about spouses and family, and never ask an Arab colleague about his wife or daughter. Crossing your legs and showing the soles of your shoes or feet are considered rude, as is openly disagreeing with someone, in Arab countries. The thumbs-up sign is rude in Muslim countries.

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