The Middle East - Building Relationships


Building Relationships

The following are some pointers to the main areas one should consider if they are serious about building strong and profitable relationships in the Middle East:

1. Invest time - in order to build a relationship you must be willing to invest time. Do not expect deals to be completed in two visits to the region. One must spend time nurturing the relationship and show great awareness as to when it is at a stage appropriate to take things forward in a business sense.

2. Small talk - informal chatting is critical. Never jump straight into business at a meeting. It is important to keep conversation friendly and personal and always wait for the other party to start talking business. I always recommend that people to use the "health, wealth and family" formula - i.e. ask about their personal well-being, business and the kids.

3. Get Personal - one should not be afraid to open up and divulge personal details. In order to really get a relationship at the stage where the trust is firm and mutual both sides need to get personal.

4. Understand face - one must observe and try and understand how face, shame and honour work in the region. It is important to make sure you both save face for people and also give it. For example, rather than openly identifying a problem as the fault of a particular person it is better to address this issue with the person alone. They will appreciate that you have helped save face. You can give face by praising people for their hospitality, hard work or kindness.

5. Using networks - in the Gulf region there is a concept known as "wasta". This is where people use their connections in order to get things done. For example, if a person needs a visa to Sweden but have left it too late, they can see if people within their network system have "wasta" in the embassy. If they do, they will ask them to help get them the visa. In order to succeed in the region it is important to use wasta and to also reciprocate favours done for you.

6. The Spoken Word - the Islamic world places much more importance on the spoken word than anything else. This goes back to the beginnings of Islam where the Quran was a revelation disseminated through speech. The first adherents of Islam accepted the religion through trust in the Prophet Muhammad and his word. Again this goes back to the whole idea of honour and shame, i.e. if a person was to lie this would bring shame upon them. Therefore it is critical that one keeps to their word. Broken promises will lead to broken relationships.

7. Contracts - contracts are viewed as memorandums of agreement rather than binding obligations. One can still have contracts signed but never see them as water tight. If in a business relationship both sides started to communicate through a contract it is a sure sign that the relationship has broken down. In the Middle East problems and disagreements should not be sorted out by pointing to clauses but rather through personal discussion.

8. Continuity - once a relationship has been built it is important to maintain continuity. If there is to be a personnel change in the region it is critical that the person leaving the region introduce the new face. This allows the local contacts a sense of continuity and importantly the reassurance that their new contact is someone they can trust and rely on.

9. Evolution - the Middle East is steeped in religion, culture and a pattern of thought. It is important to always remember that things change slowly there.


To sum up, this presentation has stated that those planning on doing business in the Middle East need to take some cross cultural knowledge with them in order to maximise their potential. One area of Middle Eastern culture that sharply differs from the European or North American mentality is the role personal relationships play in getting business done. The Middle East is a relationship driven culture and this means that if the right amount of time and energy is not invested in building and maintaining relationships then the chances of success are limited.

Copyright Kwintessential 2005 

Part One: Introduction
Part Two: A Relationship Driven Culture
Part Three: Potential Culture Clash