I started my career in the Middle East as a business developer and managed to work in multiple Middle-Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and Yemen. After that, I moved to Europe to do my International Business masters and got a couple of jobs there afterwards.
It took me a while to understand that conducting business in Europe is very different from the Middle East. Things seem to be going by the book in the West, not very much in the Middle East. The knowledge I gained from my masters was very applicable in Europe, but wasn't sufficient on its own to conduct business successfully in the Middle East.
In this piece, I'll share with you the 3 major keys to successfully conduct business in the Middle East.
1- Make Friendships Before Business
People coming from collectivist societies like Middle Eastern ones do not prefer to do business with people that they don't know. That being said, if you want to close deals with Middle-eastern firms, you need to establish a friendship with your client. Friendship and business come hand in hand in the Middle East. It might not be a professional way to conduct business, and it comes with its own risks, but this is how things work here. It doesn't matter how good is your offering; if we don't like you, we're not signing with you.
2- Understand the Power Distance
Power Distance refers to the relationship between those in power and the subordinates in a society. Dutch Psychologist Geert Hofstede identified the power distance index as one of the 6 metrics by which his cultural dimensions theory is built.
When comparing Middle-Eastern countries with Western ones, 2 metrics stand out of the crowd as major cultural differences: the first is the level of individualism vs collectivism which we touched on in the previous point, and the second is the power distance.
High figures in the Middle East means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organization is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.
With this in mind, you're advised to build business relationships with decision-makers directly to skip the hierarchy. In case this was out of reach, try convincing your point of contact that your offering is appealing to their boss, and they will get the boss's gratitude for this business deal.
3- Take It Easy With Timetables
We're religious about 99 things, time isn't one of them. A 15 minutes delay to a meeting is considered within the acceptable range. An "I'll get back to you soon" email could take a week.
My advice to you when you plan a project is to take delays into consideration and add buffers to your project plan. If you need something from the client to be ready by Thursday, tell them you need it by Tuesday and hopefully you'll get it by Thursday. Don't shy away from doing more followups than you normally do. You have to steer the wheel if you're intending on delivering the project on time.
The Bottom Line
Business relationships in the Middle East are considered to be an extension of social and personal relationships. Once you understand this, you need to reflect Middle-Eastern cultural values into your business communications. To sum up: be less "professional" and more personal.