Salam Aleikum. This is the general greeting in both Arabic and Muslim countries. On Wednesday 16th February we had the honour of having Félix Santos give us a seminar at the Master in International Business  about “Doing Business in the Arabic World”.

Félix is currently Export Manager at Tecnilatex, and has over 15 years of experience in the export sector, though his real speciality is the Arabian market after having completed his studies in Sematic Philology.

About the Arabic countries and their link to religion.

Many of us think we are familiar with the Arabian market, given that we are so close to countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, as well the Arabic influence in Spain, but would we really know how to negotiate in the Arabic world? What are the traditions, rules and values that we would have to follow? The question, ‘Which are the Arabic countries?’ sounds so obvious. Before you start to do business in this market, it is fundamental that you have some basic knowledge about its history, which is strongly linked to its religion, Islam. Here we can answer almost all of the above questions. We could say that the Arabic countries are any who have origin in the Arabian Peninsula, and therefore discard countries such as Turkey.

Islam is the third largest monotheist religion, after Judaism and Christianity, and It was in the 17th Century where it experienced its greatest expansion with the Ottoman empire. For curiosity reasons, we must not forget that the empire tried to occupy Austria, home to the Croissant. This pastry was created by Viennese pastry chefs to symbolise the “eating” of the half-moon symbol which represents Islam, and publicly show their rejection to the religion.

Islam touches the lives of all Arabic people, and consequently plays an important role in their business negotiations. A fundamental concept to keep in mind is that muslins should not be labelled “Mohammedans”, as this term implies that Islam is prohibited. It is therefore important to have basic knowledge about the Islamic teachings, especially about the sacred book, the “Qur’an”, which contains both a religious section and a normative one. The latter affects us in terms of civil and commercial law.

The Pillars of Islam and how they affect business negotiations

The five pillars are the five prescribed ritual obligations, and to follow them is a Muslim’s central pillar of faith.

  1. To perfect faith شَهادة (shahada)
  2. To perform the 5 daily prayers الإسلام (salat)

In many establishments, offices or businesses there is a room dedicated to prayer. During the time of prayer, work tasks are temporarily put on hold.

  1. To fast during the month of Ramadan صوم (sawm). According to market studies, the perfect moment to introduce a product into the Arabic world is at the end of Ramadan, when the fast is ending (Eid Al Fitr).

Given that commercial timetables and daily life is totally affected by Ramadan, it is not recommended to do business visits to Arabic countries at this time.

  1. To pay the charity tax زكاة (zakat)
  2. To make the trip of pilgrimage to Mecca at least one time in your life حج (hach). Many nature tousim companies can benefit from this tradition.

Keys to doing business in the Arabic World: Traditions and customs

The Arabic language is the force which unites its people. Despite the different accents and dialects of each country, we have the advantage that almost all countries speak French or English due to the occupations throughout history.

Despite the influence of means of communication and the western companies which operate in these countries, the westernization of Arabs has caused a great debate. This is due to the quandary between tradition and modernization. The resistance to westernization can be subjected to the people and the origins of their history.

The most important ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’

  • Dignity, honour and reputation are of great importance
  • Appearances are fundamental. Hospitality and courtesy.
  • Loyalty to one’s family. This is also true for business environments. We always créate “small talk” where we ask about the family, however not so directly about the daughters or wife of the person in question.
  • Primacy of age and experience. Authority is essential when greeting.
  • Islam determines many daily behaviour patterns. Atheism and Agnosticism is incomprehensible.
  • They are aware of and proud of their rich culture and history.
  • A good personal relationship is the most important factor in being successful with Arabic business partners.
  • Friendships are very important. There is the obligation to help people and reciprocate favours.
  • Never openly reject a business proposal.
  • Share both personal and private information.
  • Avoid direct criticism.
  • Foreign visitors are automatically informed with the status and privileges of the upper class.
  • Demonstrate human warmth and friendship. Tactile conduct. When a man and a woman are introduced, the man must first wait to see how she greets him, and then react appropriately.
  • The way things are said are just as important as the words themselves.
  • It is neither convenient nor recommendable to dress in traditional clothing (in some countries this is actually illegal)
  • Women should always wear clothes that cover up their body. In some countries they also have to cover their hair. We ought not to forget that shoulders are considered one of the most sensual parts of a womans body, and therefore it is highly recommended that they cover this part entirely.
  • Do not drink alcohol or eat pork in front of Muslims or in public.
  • Always use the right hand to greet and accept food or drink.
  • When building business relationships in the Arabic world, you must travel to the destination point as until here you can’t begin the negotiation.
  • Never sit with your legs crossed showing the sole of your shoes towards the interlocutor.
  • Arabs believe in people, not in institutions, and therefore negotiations will be made based on this belief. We therefore have to try to make our own decisions and try to avoid consulting out boss (whenever possible)

When considering business negotiations, the Arabic market holds great potential, given that we would be considering 300 million consumers. Nowadays, we find true geographic dispersion between these countries, although the feeling of unity, their common language (although it has variations and dialects) and their religion help them work with the occidental world.

We find an important niche in the market of Muslim consumers, given that, according to the data from ONU, the Muslim population exceeds 1,700 million people, representing 26% of the world’s population and has an annual growth rate of 6.5%.

We hope that all the advice and recommendations will be useful for future negotiations with the Arabic world, and before long we will have the opportunity to put them into practice. As said by an Arab, “Insha ‘Alla”, which means, “if Allah wills”.