Understanding Arab culture and etiquette when doing business in Qatar

Arab Cultural and Business Etiquette in Qatar

An awareness of Arab culture and the business etiquette of the Middle East are essential to successful professional interactions in Qatar. An understanding of culturally appropriate business and personal behaviour could not only help avoid an embarrassing faux pas or, worse, giving unintended offence, but will also smooth businesses dealings. Dale Ashford of Venture Partner Qatar shares some pointers for your initial contact with local business people in Qatar.

Establishing a relationship is vital
Personal relationships are the foundation of a successful business association in Qatar. When starting a business or even conducting research into a business opportunity, personal contact and face-to-face communication is key. Far more can be achieved through a personal meeting than over the phone or via email. Wherever possible try to set up a face to face meeting and get to know the person first, before discussing business.

Tapping into the networks of Qatar are important to accessing a particular business or industry. Often employing a local contact or consultant can put you in contact with the right person and save you significant time, effort and money.

The development of trust and rapport with local business contacts takes time and should be factored into your business planning.

The Business week in Qatar
In Qatar, the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday with many organisations operating on Saturday. Government offices usually open Sunday to Thursday from 6.00am until 2.00pm but it is a good idea to look up each business or government entity on line or call them to check. During Ramadan, business and government offices working hours will be considerably shorter by at least two hours, government offices are normally three hours shorter.

Punctuality is appreciated but may not be reciprocated. As a sign of respect to your host make sure you turn up to meetings on time but your local counterpart may be half an hour or more late. It is best to anticipate this and schedule extra time for meetings as they may start late, run longer than expected and be interrupted. This is not a lack of respect, just a different cultural norm.

Language and business cards
Arabic is the official language of Qatar, although English is widely used in business and socially. Out of courtesy, it would be wise to get your business cards printed in both Arabic and English and check that all words and images on your card translate well to Arabic without giving offence.

While most business correspondence is in English, Arabic is sometimes preferred, especially in the public sector. Sourcing a translator or being accompanied by someone who speaks Arabic is advised, your local embassy and local contacts are a good place to start.

Greetings
Each person in a business meeting should be greeted individually, starting with the most senior person first. A handshake is the most common form of greeting. Wait for a local woman to extend her hand first as conservative women may choose not to shake hands. If, eventually, you become very well acquainted with your host, the more traditional greeting is touching of cheeks three times, it signifies a kiss but normally there is no kiss, or touching noses three times.

Arabic phrases
Learning a few phrases in Arabic will be welcomed and appreciated. Being able to say Salam (commonly used as hello but means ‘Peace’) or As Salam Alaikum (Peace be upon you), Marhabba (good day), Ma’a Salama (goodbye – means ‘with peace’) and Shukran (thank you) may surprise and delight your host, as many assume that foreigners will not have learned any Arabic before arriving.

Meeting etiquette
Meetings are an opportunity to build business relationships and trust. Most local business men and women may engage in small talk before a meeting asking about such things as your health and family before the purpose of the meeting is even brought up. It is expected that you will also ask about their family in general terms and having a few anecdotes and questions ready is advised. This part of the meeting is very important as it allows your host to get to know you better, develop a personal relationship and most importantly builds mutual trust.

The most senior person in the room will usually introduce and lead the formal business discussion which may take a more circular route than you are used to. Again, patience is important. Don’t try to rush negotiations and make sure that any feedback is respectfully given as it highly offensive to directly criticise or directly disagree with a local business person and will cause them deep embarrassment. Disagreements may be resolved using a non-confrontational, more subtle approach. Using phrases such as,

“In order to progress it may be better to……’ or
“I believe that in the past …….has worked well and may be our best course to move forward”.

Locals are also unlikely to disagree directly with you so as not to cause you embarrassment. It can therefore be difficult to ascertain where you are in negotiations. It is always best to follow up a meeting with an email to make sure you are all on the same page.

Take multiple copies of all printed material used in the meeting to be passed on to other decision makers in the organisation.

General Etiquette
There are some actions that Qatari people may find distasteful and therefore, they should be avoided if possible, namely; chewing gum during a meeting, particularly if the mouth is open; crossing your legs so that the point and sole of your shoe is facing your host; tattoos are frowned on and should be covered if possible; ladies wearing skirts should be aware of their posture whilst sitting; pointing at your host or anyone else in the meeting; trying to exert too much authority on the meeting; offering anything with your left hand, everything should be received in the right hand and all food and drink should consumed with the right hand. If you have caused offence, the chances are, that you will not know it because your host will be too polite to point it out to you.

Arabic clothing
Business attire is expected and men should wear a suit and tie. Women should dress in a fairly conservative fashion ensuring their shoulders and knees are covered. Your male local hosts will most likely wear their traditional Arab dress. Local women will normally wear an Abaya (a long flowing, normally black, dress over their clothing) and either a part or full head covering. A head covering for women is not expected of foreigners.

Hospitality
Arabs are very hospitable and likely to offer you refreshments, gifts and invitations as a sign of respect. During a meeting, be sure to accept refreshment if offered. If you are invited for a meal, it is polite to accept and then reciprocate the offer. It is usual that the person who has issued the invitation will pay the bill. Certainly, if you host the meeting, refreshments should be offered, this is expected.

An invitation to a local’s home is a great opportunity to build a relationship which can aid your business dealings. A few things to be aware of are:

  • Be on time but don’t expect to eat immediately
  • Take a small gift of appreciation
  • It is normal for men and women to eat separately but not always the case
  • Follow the instructions of your host and watch for signs of custom such as the oldest person in the room sitting and being offered food before the rest of the party
  • Conversations should be polite, stay away from politics and religion and only refer to business if your host does first

How do I get more information?
Venture Partner Qatar help many businesses set up in Qatar and can provide invaluable advice and expertise when navigating Arab culture. For assistance with starting a business in Qatar, or expanding a global company, contact us for further information.

If you would like to speak with Dale from Venture Partner Qatar or one of his team please contact: +974 44788765 or e-mail; dale@vpqatar.com