The Middle East - A Relationship Driven Culture


The Middle East

Before discussing the Middle East as a region it is important to bear two things in mind. Firstly the Middle East is not a homogenous region. The area is not solely populated by Arabs but also Kurds, Turks, Iranians and more. In addition it not only inhabited by Muslims. There are many manifestations of Islam across the region that live alongside Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. For simplicity I will primarily focus on Arabs.

Secondly, please note that the article will be making generalisations about the Middle East. Generalisations are observations made by outsiders on a region about a culture or society. These of course do not bear in mind individual differences. For example, I can make the generalisation that women in the Middle East do not shake hands with men, but there will always be exceptions to the rule.

We use generalisations in intercultural awareness training as it acts as a useful safety net, meaning if someone goes to the region and knows nothing about it they can fall back on the generalisations made until they start to figure things out for themselves.

Relationship Driven Cultures

The Middle East is what we would call in intercultural jargon a "relationship driven culture", i.e. personal relationships form the basis of social (and business ) interaction. Relationship driven cultures usually have the following traits:

1. Collectivist - this means that in such cultures the "we" takes precedence over the "I". This group mentality means the interests, opinions and decisions of the group carry much more weight than that of the individual.

2. The Family - the family or tribe takes central focus in daily life. In such cultures very tight relationships are built with a small group of people whereas in more individual cultures people tend to have loose relationships with many people. Such family centred cultures tend to put the interests of the family first. Manifestations of this are that nepotism is seen as natural and protecting the honour of the family is a very high priority.

3. Hierarchy - a hierarchical society it used to levels of authority. A good example of how a hierarchical society differs to a more level one is in management styles. In less hierarchical cultures a subordinate is expected to use initiative, share in the decision making process, can say "no" to the boss and most of the time has an informal relationship with the boss. In hierarchical societies the boss takes sole control because that is what they are paid for. Staff will expect explicit orders and guidance, meetings will be where decisions are implemented rather than discussed and very formal relationships exist with the boss.

4. Honour/Shame/Face - In relationship driven cultures there is usually an emphasis on maintaining face, i.e. upholding the family/tribal honour. As a result there are usually very complex rules of engagement and communication styles. For example in the Middle East, saying "no" or blatantly disagreeing with people is not usually done in order to save people's face. We therefore see a lot of "beating about the bush" as people try to phrase sentiments in a way that does not make someone lose face. A simple example would be that instead of "no" you may get "I will try", "Let's do our best" or "God willing".

5. Networks - due to such cultures relying on bonds and relationships, networks are usually the way things get done. An intricate means of favours and reciprocation are part of daily life, from being introduced to the right people or getting past red tape. Being part of a network gives you access to resources.

6. Consensus - in hierarchical societies decisions are usually made on a group basis. Although in the Middle East final decision making is usually made by the head of the family or tribe, there is still a level of consultation with others called "shura". Shura means surveying the opinions of those who are most knowledgeable in order to reach a decision that is best. Therefore within the business world it is important not to only concentrate on building relationships with decision makers but also those that advise them.

Part One: Introduction
Part Three: Potential Culture Clash
Part Four: Building Relationships