Are you planning to grow your business in the Arab world? Are you about to take up a new position in your company’s offices based in Dubai, Kuwait, Amman or Cairo? Then you need to pay special attention to the significance of relationships in this culture.
Like other honour-based cultures, the Arabs attach great value to building and nurturing relationships. Business is built on relationships. And Arabs do take business personally and would, more often than not, put the relationship above any other consideration.
In other cultures, business can be quite impersonal. It is said that two Americans can meet at an airport and start a business together as long as they have a good product and the figures add up.
David, a diplomat who has been working in the region for over seven years, now understands the difference: ‘In Britain, let’s say I was the director of a division, and then someone else takes over my position. On that day, I stop talking to every- body and I automatically hand over my contacts to the new guy, because it is about the role, not the person. Here, it doesn’t work like that; it is about knowing people and building up that trust. So I cannot just hand over my contact list to the person who succeeds me.’
In the Arab world, people must get to know you first and build a personal relationship before they can do business. You have to go through a certain amount of ceremony to build up the respect and the trust. People need to first get a feel for you and what you are all about, and it needs to be done face-to-face. It will take time to build enough rapport or acceptance with whoever you want to deal with in this part of the world, but I assure you, it is well worth the investment for once you have taken that time and you pass a certain point, then all of a sudden you are a friend, and you are someone they can trust. Once you get to that point, you have developed a very valuable and meaningful business relationship.
Toshihiro Abe, a Japanese businessman, has also discovered the great value Arabs attach to the comfort they feel in an established relationship: ‘We have some small customers who buy very little from us; I tell them that it would be better for them to move to another supplier that can handle these small accounts. But they never accept. They say, “We have experience with your company for thirty- five years; I know you; why do I have to go somewhere else?” Toshihiro realises, ‘Sometimes I have to think about the business, but sometimes I have to understand and respect the relationship with the customer and maintain it – even if common sense says that we can cut that business easily.’
So if you are thinking a couple of days with back to back meetings would be sufficient to get you that contract, think again. If you are not willing to invest the time to build that relationship; if you are not comfortable with that blurring between work and friendship; if you are not genuine and sincere with your interactions, then you are setting yourself up for a miserable, frustrating and distressing experience in the Arab world.