The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are: The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. Each country is unique and has its own cultural variations and business operations etiquette, so for example what works in the UAE may not work in KSA. Even within each country, the business culture of major cities operates differently to that of less populated cities or regions. However, there are some commonalities in how the GCC operates and how to optimise successful business operations. My first absolute rule, above all others, to succeed in the GCC is to be genuinely interested in other people, listening to them and learning about them and their environments enabling the formation of good relationships.
RELIGION. DO: Read about Islam and seek to understand and overcome any misconceptions that you may have that were probably drilled into you by the media. My personal experiences over the many years of working in the GCC is very positive and I enjoy working with Muslims. DO: When in an Islamic country you need to respect and adhere to their rules and how to behave in society. DON’T: If your family and friends often call you either racist, prejudiced or Islamophobic DON’T even think of attempting to conduct business in the GCC. No matter how much you think you can hide it, it will shine through and you could lose lots of money and at worst, end up in jail.
HOLIDAYS. DO: Educate yourself on the Islamic holidays such as names, relevance, when they are, and what to wish someone. The correct wish with the correct timing goes a long way to building respect. DON’T: Contacting a prospect or client during an Islamic holiday as it will quickly show your ignorance and lack of respect.
POLITICS. DO: Understand the politics in the GCC to the best of your ability. DON’T: Ever give an opinion, as the moment you do you will have won the business from one client and forever lost the business of another. The wise approach is to read, learn, listen and avoid giving an opinion or simply say you do not understand enough to give an opinion.
LOOSE LIPS. DO: Understand that governments and religious leaders are very powerful across the GCC and in many countries, are loved by their people. DON’T: Ever criticise any governments or religious leaders in public or private to anyone, no matter what your opinion or how safe a location or person you think they are.
GOVERNMENTS. DO: Understand that to conduct business in the GCC it is likely that you will need to engage with national and/ or local government authorities as obtaining government licenses to sell your product or service is critical. It is also critical to know which department to go to and who to speak too. DON’T: Never try and cheat the system and sell without license as both the financial and personal consequences are significant.
LANGUAGE. DO: Learn some basic greetings, courteous phrases in Arabic, Urdu and Hindi as this will catapult you into the 5% that make any effort at all. Your effort will be exceptionally well received and goes a long way to building bonds and respect. DON’T: Only learn Arabic and greet every darker skinned person with As-Salaam-Alaikum as not every person in the GCC is Muslim.
PROXIMITY. DO: If you are going to succeed in business in the GCC you either need to be there yourself or appoint people on your behalf who live in the country that you want to conduct business in. Only when trust is built can communication move to WhatsApp as an interim communication method to use between face to face meetings. DON’T: Attempt to conduct business by email in the GCC as it wont work.
VALUES. DO: Understand that in business, clients want to know who you are, what you stand for and what your values are. DON’T: assume if you offer a profitable deal that the other party will take it as if they don’t like you or trust you then the deal may not proceed.
SPEED OF BUSINESS. DO: Understand that getting to know a person takes time so the timeline to seeing money flow is far longer than in the UK. DON’T: Rush the process as it is likely to kill your relationship both with your prospect and the people that they influence.
FOOD. DO: Understand that breaking bread together is an age-old way of bonding and getting to know a person so always accept an offer to go for a meal as you are being given an opportunity to form a relationship that could lead to business. DON’T: Generosity and sharing is a strong Arabic culture so when your host insists on paying, allow them and thank them for their generosity.
ALCOHOL. DO: You can find private bars to drink alcohol but keep it to a minimum and don’t invite people to join; having a reputation as a ‘drinker’ is not the way to gain respect or trust. DON’T: Drink so much that you look, and smell hung over the following day as if you visit any prospects or clients then you instantly shame yourself and kill your business relationship.
FLIRTING. DO: Understand that flirting in the workplace is sexual harassment and may result in a far worse outcome that a visit to HR for cross cultural training session. DON’T: Never, ever, not even for a second flirt with a GCC national as, if it causes the person to be offended then the consequences are severe. This is another great reason not to drink alcohol or to limit your drink while in the GCC.
PDA WITH EXPATS: DO: Understand the rules that pubic displays of affection are offensive to public decency. DON’T: Make the mistake that during the typical working hours of 9am to 6pm there is one set of behaviour rules then they change at 6pm or if you enter a bar. The PDA rules are 24 hours a day. If you are seen ‘committing’ PDA then then this shows ignorance, lack of respect and may have commercial and personal consequences.
DRESS CODE: The fact is that the GCC is stricter for a woman’s dress code than for men. DO: Both men and women should cover their shoulders, arms and legs. If you have any tattoos, cover them up or put a plaster on them to hide them. DO: It is very useful to lean the different dress styles and colours of the GCC nationals’ outfits. Knowing the difference will subtlety show your knowledge during a conversation which will build respect. DON’T: Unless you want to go to jail, never point at women whether they are in National Dress or otherwise attired in religious clothes.
WEEKENDS: Why you ask, should you not contact your customers on a Friday? In the GCC it’s the Holy day, a day of prayer and family time; you would not call a prospect or client on a Sunday! For clarity, some businesses are in operation on Saturdays.
SUMMARY: The GCC is an amazing place to do business as it is rich in opportunities and the GCC countries have an appetite for innovation and progression. However, unless you know what you are doing the GCC is also a place to lose a tremendous amount of money. My advice is to take your time and deeply learn how to operate in the GCC or to partner with a company to support you to succeed.
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