Westerners often find that the Middle East is very different than what they are accustomed. When doing business there, it is vital to keep these cultural differences in mind and practice proper etiquette and protocol.
What to wear
It is extremely important to dress modestly and conservatively when doing business in the Middle East. Do not be revealing in any way. Cover shoulders, arms, legs, and do not wear open-toed shoes. Men should wear dark suits; it is considered more professional. While it is not necessary for non-Muslim women to wear a hijab (headscarf), it is good to keep one on hand. Also, women should wear suits or skirts that have hems well below the knee.
Depending on your location, be aware that you might be approached by security guards or other locals if they deem your clothing inappropriate. If such an event happens, remain calm, politely apologize and go change into something more modest. Thus, it is helpful to pack a couple versions of some of your most conservative clothing, so you are always able to make a change if necessary.
In the Middle East, one must understand that Islam permeates all levels of society. In all settings, the traditional Islamic greeting is “Asalamu Alaykum” (peace be with you). Non-Muslims are not expected to use it, however, if you do reply, say, “wa alaykum salam,” which means, “and peace be with you.”
It is common to shake hands (with the right hand) when meeting. Be aware that these can last a long time because Islamic etiquette recommends that a person waits for the other person to withdraw their hand.
Business with women
Because gender roles are more defined in the Arab culture, the business between the sexes still not common and often frowned upon. However, if you are a male introduced to a woman in business, it is advisable to wait to see if she extends her hand in greeting. If it is not, then do not try to shake hands. Also, avoid prolonged eye contact with women.
More than anything in writing, more value is placed on someone’s spoken word and connected to his honor. Contracts are not viewed as binding, fixed agreements, but more as memorandums of understanding. Thus, it is important to be aware of what you say in a business setting and be sure to promise only what you know you can deliver.
Social versus business
Business in the Middle East is based on trust and respect. Thus, business relationships are built on mutual friendship and trust. However, you must keep the two separate and not discuss business in social situations.
Observant Muslims do not drink alcohol. While not available in restaurants, some alcohol is served in Middle Eastern hotels. If alcohol is not offered, do not to ask for it. Also, never give alcohol as a “thank you gift.”