MIDDLE EAST: HOW PEACE CAN COME TO THE MIDDLE EAST. - Richard Lewis says that when westerners make a business trip to the Middle East they are advised to become more extrovert, speak up and rethink their idea of personal space.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Richard Lewis says that when westerners make a business trip to the Middle East they are advised to become more extrovert, speak up and rethink their idea of personal space.

The Arab and the western worlds are separated by more than just a language. Each is organised in its own manner, with few common points of contact. Westerners and Arabs, for example, have very different views on what is right and wrong, good and evil, logical and illogical, acceptable and unacceptable. Accordingly, unless the business traveller to an Arab country gains a deeper understanding of how these two mind-sets differ, both sides are likely to gain an unfavourable impression of the other.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Arabs are used to dealing with foreigners and readily forgive them for not behaving as they do. Nevertheless, it is important to avoid saying or doing anything considered insulting or derogatory. This includes the use of alcohol, improper dress and challenging the basic concepts of Islam. In the Gulf States, for example, a good manager is also a good Muslim. This is most apparent in the language used, which makes frequent references to Allah and aligns itself with the style and precepts of the Koran.

For the rest, as elsewhere, Arabs look for sincerity in the conduct of business and expect to be shown the same respect that they show you. If you appear sincere there should be no problem. The northern European tendency to frown upon Latin or Middle Eastern behaviour (talkativeness, invasion of privacy, poor time-keeping, demonstrative body language) should also be firmly suppressed; the Arabs, like their western counterparts, are not about to change their character. Hence the best way to communicate is for the cool Anglo-Saxon to make a few concessions towards extroversion. Some might find this difficult, even painful, but the rewards are considerable. The sense of personal space in the Arab world, for example, is quite different to that in the West - when talking one must stand much closer to one's partner than one would in Britain or Germany. If you keep your distance, an Arab will think you find his physical presence distasteful or that you are particularly cold. Arabs speak volubly and earnestly to someone they like. The visitor must be prepared to do the same. They are also very dependent on eye contact, and are offended if you cannot meet their gaze. Similarly, though Anglo-Saxons may be uncomfortable with flattery or professions of friendship, Arabs use such utterances as a matter of course. In return, do not hesitate to praise their country and its arts and food.

Not only do you have to speak more but you must step up the volume as well. Loudness of voice, rising pitch and tone, even shouting, all denote sincerity and genuine feeling rather than anger. Again, some may find this hard. In Arab society it is quite normal to use speech in a rhetorical, almost aggressive manner to make a point. Indeed, the inherent qualities of the language lend it to such use. The Arabs are great admirers of eloquence and if you can aspire to eloquence in their presence it will be taken as a sign of education, refinement and sincerity, no matter how verbose it may sound to western ears.

Business is always discussed against an intensely personal background. In negotiation you must give the impression that, while you are there to do business, you above all want to do business with him. If an Arab talks of his connections and 'network' he is showing you the value of personal relationships. If his uncle is influential in a government department (or, better still, is the minister) he will expect you to take delight in the possibility of that influence being used to help you. In the Arab world nepotism has none of the negative associations it has in the West. In such circumstances do not appear reluctant to accept favours. You will doubtless be asked favours in return in due course.

There is also the ordeal of a business meeting, which for a northern European can be particularly onerous. The Arab concept of 'open house', where visitors may gain access at all times, has in this century been extended to the less practical concept of 'open office'. It may sound friendly, but things can easily become chaotic if you have the first appointment. Northern Europeans expect some kind of privacy while they discuss business. In Arab countries, according to the age-old tradition, visitors are shown straight into the office. Those who normally expect the privilege of speaking without interruption soon become nonplussed as anything up to half a dozen visitors join in the seance.

Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon visitor, unused to hearing several people speak at the same time, stands little chance of making himself heard in the general hubbub. Rearranging the appointment for the next day is often of little help, since the number of interruptions is unlikely to be less. Given such circumstances, it is unsurprising that some who spend their working life in the Middle East resort to what appear extreme tactics.

The commercial counsellor at an embassy in Abu Dhabi, for example, has a much-practised solution to the above dilemma. 'When in an office you have to sit right next to the man you are doing business with; on the other side of his desk is not close enough - you have to be no more than a foot away. When you have secured this position, you then pound his ear with your propositions until he agrees with them. As he is suffering from numerous distractions from various angles, acquiescence is usually the easiest way out. Enterprising Latins, such as Italians, often push documents to sign in front of him in such circumstances. You may be unable to do this, but modesty will get you nowhere.' Extreme, perhaps, but apparently highly effective.

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