Appreciating Arab Etiquette And Attitudes:

Definition

One of the greatest and most common mistakes is to generalise about ‘the Arabs’. One might just as well generalise about Europeans. Moroccans and Dubaians are both Arabs the same as Swedes and Italians are both Europeans, but there the similarity ends. Even commonality of language is not as great as many think. Whilst it is true that written Arabic is uniform from country to country, spoken Arabic is extremely dialectic to the extent that a Moroccan and a Dubaian each speaking her own dialect of Arabic would find it difficult to understand each other because the former dialect is heavily influenced by Berber and the latter by Farsi.

The definition of Arab is deceptively simple. An Arab is a descendant of Abraham through the senior line (Ishmael). Therefore Arabs constitute some 90% of Semites, the remaining percentage being Jews. Just to confuse things, however, there are Arab Jews as well; most notably two tribes in the Yemen.

Both the Qur’an and the Bible state that Ishmael settled in what is now Mecca. By the advent of Islam, his progeny occupied all of Arabia (the Arabian Peninsula). Within a century thereafter, Islam was spread by the Arabs north into the Byzantine Empire and as far west as Spain. Rather than impose Arabian culture, the conquerors absorbed and adapted to local culture. They also married natives, resulting in the many diverse national identities collectively called ‘Arab’.

One of the few constants throughout the region is the importance of good manners. As the then Prince Faisal of the Hejaz (later King Faisal I of Iraq) in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, was quoted when comparing his attitude to that of T.E. Lawrence, ‘With Major Lawrence mercy is a passion. With me it is good manners.’

The code of proper behaviour is remarkably consistent from one Arab country to another, basically varying only in intensity. In a brief treatise like this it is impossible to cover all local variations. Not surprisingly, the strictest interpretation and observance is in the heartland of both the Arabs and Islam; what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi custom will therefore be the benchmark of what follows because if one behaves properly on Saudi standards, he is unlikely to go astray in any other Arab country.

Behaviour and Business

Emphasis on the social graces may seem irrelevant to those seeking to do business in such a highly competitive market. That is why so many fail.

An integral part of good manners anywhere in the world is politeness. Arabs are extremely polite; so much so that they would never dream of betraying offence. Many a western businessman has suffered because his Arab hosts were far too polite to let him know that what he may have thought to be a slight gaffe (if, indeed, he recognised his wrongdoing at all) had in fact caused great offence.

One Swiss banker failed to secure a Royal account because he neglected to remove his shoes before entering the prince’s audience. The prince received him with great friendliness and hospitality, but only once. His shoes, having been worn in the street, likely deposited impurities on the carpet, thereby rendering it unfit to pray upon. It was recognised that the man’s misdeed was one of ignorance but the prince rightly wondered if the banker might be as careless with his money as he had been with the carpet.

Such politeness is all part of that greatest of Arab virtues; hospitality. No host should stint on entertaining his guest and no guest should decline his host’s generosity.

Potential millions were lost in this way by another Swiss bank that sent an ignorant representative to a Royal Adviser in Jeddah. The man invited his target prey to ‘do’ lunch with him but, when his guest was attracted to the caviar on the menu, the representative said that his boss would never tolerate such an item on his expense account. He really seemed to expect that his guest would recommend large amounts of money be entrusted to him when his employer would not trust him with the price of a jar of caviar!

Such considerations may be seem common logic and good manners are usually a matter of logic, but different mentalities reason differently and what may be very polite in one culture can be incredibly rude in another.

Viewing from different aspects

Perhaps the best, or at least best known, example of conflicting social mentality is deference to women. In the west no gentleman would dream of going through a door before a women, or indeed failing to hold it open while she went through before him. Most Europeans realise that Arab custom is for a man to walk in front of a woman (albeit only in cases such as going through a door when there is no room for him to walk beside her). What is not widely known is that it is actually rude for a man to allow or even suggest that she go first. If she does, a man places himself in a position to ogle her from behind, thereby offending her modesty.

In western society, it is considered polite to express admiration for someone’s prize possession, but never do it in Arabia. To say, ‘that is beautiful,’ or, even worse, ‘I like it,’ would make the other party feel obliged to give it to you.

In Europe, one bows to royalty. It ranges from a simple court bow (head only) to a full right angle bow at the waist depending on rank and circumstances, but it is always a bow. In Arabia, depending on country, one may kiss the hand, the shoulder or even the nose of a prince, but it is always a kiss, never a bow.

On the subject of royalty, there is the well-known story about the young Princess Margaret. When asked by a friend, ‘How is your father?’ she replied, ‘You mean how is the King!’ and stormed out. Her Royal Highness was perfectly correct on English royal standards but the opposite would apply in an Arab royal court, where family relationships are more highly regarded than social standing. To say to an Arab prince, ‘How is your brother?’ or, even more familiarly, ‘Please give my regards to your brother,’ is appreciated as being courteous and considerate; not at all impertinent or presumptuous.

To quote Napoleon about Britain’s failed initial diplomatic mission to China, You have no right to send a man to China to tell them that they are to perform certain ceremonies, because such are practised in England. If I had sent an ambassador to China, I would have ordered him to make himself acquainted with the ceremonies performed by the first mandarins before the Emperor, and if required, to do the same himself, and no more.1

Above all, be careful crossing the street in Arabia, where a driver flashing his headlamps is not giving way, but claiming his right of way!

Appointments and Disappointments

The most frequent complaint voiced by neophyte western businessmen in the Middle East is failure to keep appointments. Unlike in Britain and the Continent, private appointments are rarely made more than a day in advance, even with heads of state and government ministers. Unlike Britain but like Continental Europe, appointments must be made with the individual concerned. A secretary is unlikely to have access to his boss’s diary and, even if he has, he would have no authority to make entries in it. Heads of state and government ministers are normally the only exceptions to this latter rule.

It follows that to make appointments before even travelling can be counter-productive. When accepted, such understandings are regarded to be mere general indications of likely availability, not firm commitments. On the other hand, it is not unusual to ring for an appointment and be told, ‘Come over straight away!’. In fact, the further in advance an appointment is made, the less likely punctuality.

Most of us have had the experience of making an appointment with a consultant in hospital and then being kept waiting an hour or more owing to the cumulative effect of each previous patient taking a little longer than anticipated. The same phenomenon is common in Arab commercial dealings because of courtesy. It would be extremely rude to tell a person he must leave because someone else is waiting. Equally rude is to make that other person wait. The resulting compromise is the second most complained about and misunderstood commercial custom in the Middle East; lack of privacy.

The only way to avoid discourtesy to both the person in the office and the one waiting outside is to have them both in at the same time. As tea and a friendly chat normally both precede and succeed the conduct of business, the initial overlap should not be too off-putting. Indeed, it could be advantageous to the new visitor, enabling him to make the acquaintance of a potentially useful contact he might not otherwise have met. The uneasiness arises when the earlier visitor remains long enough to hear the latter discuss business. Uncomfortable though this may be for the novice, it is something to which he must become accustomed because it is common practice. Many a man in Arabia has sipped his bank manager’s tea while listening to another customer discuss his overdraft!

Working Hours

Throughout the Islamic world (including but not limited to most of the Middle East), prayer times govern schedules. The five daily prayers are Fajr (between dawn and sunrise), Dhuhr (mid-day), Asr (mid-afternoon), Maghrib (sunset) and Isha (evening – generally an hour and a half after sunset). Times on the clock, of course, vary with the time of year but daily newspapers print the prayer times each day and one is always within earshot of the mueddhin at a nearby mosque each time he calls the faithful to prayer. Businesses are closed during prayer times but, depending on which prayer, they usually open afterwards.

As a general rule, most businesses open in the morning at about the same hour as their European counterparts. They close for Dhuhr prayer, reopen briefly afterwards and then close for most of the afternoon, opening again after Asr. In other words, they close from about 13.00 to 17.00 or shortly thereafter. Final closing is normally 22.00. Government offices open earlier in the morning but do not open in the evening and banks, whilst they do open in the evening, tend not to reopen after Dhuhr and Isha.

During Ramadhan, business hours change to allow greater rest during the fasting hours as well as time to break the fast. Only government offices and banks tend to open in the morning. Some businesses open briefly in the late afternoon but most commerce begins abut three hours after sunset with banks remaining open until midnight and other businesses at least a further two hours. The Hijri calendar being lunar, Ramadhan advances against the Gregorian calendar by 11 days each year. In 2002, it fell in November. It is a bad month in which to drum up business but an excellent time to make contacts for future use.

Friday is the weekly day of rest and Thursday is generally a half-day, equating to Sunday and Saturday, respectively, in the west. The five-day working week is therefore Saturday to Wednesday inclusive. In countries with substantial Christian minorities (e.g. Morocco and Jordan), companies often employ senior staff of both religions to facilitate seven day opening.

The fact that government documents, including visas, use Hijri dates causes substantial but unjustified confusion. There are plenty of books, diaries and computer programmes available to convert the dates.

Polite Dispatch

As in any society, there are times and circumstances in which an individual is not welcome. Arab society has even devised courteous ways of dealing with such situations.

The standard greeting throughout the Islamic world is, ‘As-salam alaikum,’ (peace be upon you). It is the mandatory conversational icebreaker, always uttered by the person initiating the dialogue, as well as being a passing greeting. Strict etiquette applies to its use. The person arriving must address it to the one(s) already present, the individual to the group and the one of lower station to his superior (including the younger to the elder). Before entering a room, therefore, one must stand at the threshold and remain there until the greeting has been returned. Only then may he enter. The person addressed must respond at least to the same level. He may also embellish his reply with a maximum of two optional phrases to emphasise the intensity of his welcome. Failure to respond at all is incredibly rude and has been known to lead to lasting rancour. There is but one exception, in which case one is expected to ignore a greeting. That is when he is ‘speaking to someone more important’ (a delightful Arabic euphemism for being at prayer)!

Arabic coffee (the strong, pale, thin brew flavoured with cardamom, poured from a brass dallah and drunk from half filled thimble cups) is also part of a welcoming ritual. Three is the normally polite number of cups to drink, but the coffee bearer will continue to replenish your cup until you make the standard gesture (unfortunately difficult to describe in writing) to indicate you have had enough. Being a welcoming drink, it always drunk before a meal, never afterwards. In fact, its slight bitterness makes it an excellent aperitif. It is normally offered as a complimentary greeting immediately on arriving at a restaurant (before being seated) and hotels often have a coffee stall in the front hall, near the dining room. If you have to go to the trouble of requesting it, you may be in the wrong hotel. If the request proves difficult, you are definitely in the wrong hotel!

Important as it is as a welcome, coffee can also be used as a polite request to leave on certain levels (normally deputy minister and above). A coffee bearer will serve welcome drink(s) on one’s arrival and then leave the room. With experience (or detailed instruction) one can judge the pressure on his host’s time by the timing of the coffee bearer’s return.

Reading the signs

As well as figuratively reading the signs of social custom, one should also learn literally to read the signs of streets, shops and public notices. Transliteration is at best imprecise and at worst misleading.

Signs denoting the same street in central Jeddah, for example, are variously transliterated as ‘Dhahab’, ‘Dahab’ and even ‘Zahab’, according to the nationality of the transliterator. As mentioned earlier, Arabic is extremely dialectic, so that the common Arabic spelling of the street name in question would be pronounced in the three different ways by an Arabian, a Syrian/Lebanese and an Egyptian/Pakistani, respectively.

Even when dialect is not the problem, the same sounds in Arabic can sometimes be rendered by two or more totally different spellings in English. Also in Jeddah is a crossroads where the sign on one corner transliterates the name of the district as ‘Ruwais’ and that on the other corner, ‘Roaice’. In both cases, the Arabic word is the same but it requires repeated utterance aloud to realise that the two English versions can be pronounced exactly the same.

Learning to read Arabic script is the only practical solution. Fortunately, this is not so daunting a task as it might sound. The Arabic alphabet consists of just 28 letters (31 if one counts alif maqsura, hamza and te marbutta as separate letters instead of variations), all of which are always pronounced exactly the same (within the same dialect, of course). Being absolutely phonetic (unlike English, for example) makes it very easy to learn. An average linguist could master written Arabic in a few days. A good linguist might only need a few hours, whereas a really bad linguist might require up to a fortnight.

Learning to communicate in Arabic is a much more formidable task. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office officially class it as one of the world’s three most difficult languages for native English speakers. All that is being suggested here, however, is to learn to recognise and pronounce the characters of the script. There are several good self-instruction books on the subject.

Banking

There are no good banks in Arabia, but there are a few good bankers scattered about. Not every bank does everything wrongly. Of the dozen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, most do one thing well. The problem is that it is a different thing with each bank.

There is one bank that arranges bank guarantees at incredibly favourable rates (between ten and fifty percent security). The bad news is that they can take several weeks to arrange the paperwork, usually making several mistakes. On the other hand, there is another bank that arranges bank guarantees in a matter of hours but requires minimum 100% security. One bank is most efficient at expediting payments abroad but lets incoming foreign payments languish at head office several days before crediting the payee’s account. Another bank is exactly the opposite. One bank issues plastic cards virtually on the spot but can keep you waiting a month for a new chequebook whereas new chequebooks are available on demand at another bank, where one can have to wait months for a new credit card. All this is why most Saudis maintain several bank accounts, some being customers of every bank in the Kingdom.

No matter how many banks you use, one of them must emerge as the principal one for day-to-day purposes. As the relationship will become quite personal, it is important to select the right branch manager from amongst the few good bankers scattered about. It is essential that the prime personal relationship be with the manager because no one of lower position will have the authority to pull out the stops for you when needed.

Finding the right bank manager is a bit like falling in love: When you meet the right person, you will know instinctively. Most are rich men in their own right. It reduces the risk of corruption; so much so that neither his peers nor staff will respect a manager who needs his salary. Such a manager would therefore be of precious little use to the customer.

Developing a good rapport with one’s bank manager is much easier than in Europe because the atmosphere is so much more familiar. It is not only accepted but expected that a friendly customer will pop in for tea with the manager whenever he is in the bank, even if only to cash a cheque. Indeed, it is not unreasonable for the customer to wait with the manager while staff process the cheque and deliver the cash.

Bureaucracy

The one organisation in which it may not be practical to start at the top (albeit still possible) is the bureaucracy.

Middle Eastern bureaucracy is notorious, but it is those who never bothered to learn how to deal with it that often perpetuate that reputation. It is certainly different from its western counterparts, but those differences can work to one’s advantage. In some countries (Egypt, for example) bribery is the only way to get things done but elsewhere it is simply a matter of knowing how things work.

The main advantage is that it is perfectly acceptable to go over someone’s head. In fact, the junior bureaucrat is often grateful for it. In many cases, he is genuinely sympathetic but lacks the necessary authority. By going over his head, you relieve him of that uncomfortable conflict. If he hears that you have succeeded with his superior, he may well congratulate you out of genuine pleasure.

There are times when you may find yourself the victim of ill-conceived legislation that defies bending the rules or regulations. If the bureaucratic ladder is insufficient to solve your problem, don’t hesitate. A comment attributed to the late Jean-Paul Getty advised; “When in doubt, go straight to the top. The ‘No’ you get there can’t be any louder than the one you get at the bottom.”

The ultimate of going to the top is the head of state, which, in the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is not as difficult as it sounds. In most cases, however, going to the minister or his deputy will be sufficient. Appointments can be arranged on such short notice that it is often better to eschew telephoning in favour of just going unannounced to the office, speaking to the man’s secretary and then waiting. When you are received, it should be enough merely to state the problem without making a specific request. If you have ‘ears in the right places’, you will probably later learn that the minister simply told the department head that you had been to see him, without even elaborating the problem. The process has aptly been called, ‘cracking nuts with an invisible sledgehammer.’

This informal procedure has one outstanding attribute: It works!

Things aren’t always what they seem

Two men greeting each other with kisses or walking together holding hands in Arabia does not mean what a westerner might infer! Arabs are very tactile people and such behaviour merely indicates brotherly affection – nothing more. Homosexuality is illegal in Islamic countries. Presumably there is some incidence of it but, like all sexual activity, it is strictly behind closed doors. Companies are therefore strongly advised to be represented in Arabia only by heterosexual males (women are not seen as inferior to men and many wield great power, but from behind the scenes because spheres of overt activity are divided and a woman in commerce can seem as out of place as a man running a household).

This will naturally anger many readers, but the purpose of this article highlight the differing cultural and social attitudes one can encounter in countries across the Middle East. To greater or lesser extents, Arab societies value tradition and visitors should be cautious before viewing social situations and cultural attitudes though the prism of their own values.

There are more subtly deceiving social conventions of which the stranger should become aware lest he misread things to his cost.

The importance of politeness can sometimes verge on the hypocritical. If one man doesn’t like another, it would be very rude to make a display of it at a public gathering. He therefore goes to the extreme of greeting him like a long lost brother!

Similarly, hospitality must not be confused with commercial success. In fact, it can indicate just the opposite. If you lose (or are about to lose) a contract, the blow should be softened as much as possible, often by lavish entertainment, to avoid sending you home with nothing.

Consequently, being treated in an off-hand manner can be an inverted compliment. It is, of course, very bad manners and such treatment is avoided whenever possible, but at least it indicates that there is no need for public display. Nobody likes to be subjected to relative indifference but, if that is you while your competitor is being accorded great deference, you can seriously contemplate crying all the way to the bank, and at his expense too!

The British Advantage

British government relations with the Arab World during the first half of the twentieth century seemed almost specifically directed at alienation. Thereafter the Americans stepped in, commercially exploiting the area but adopting a foreign policy even more hell-bent on antagonism. Had our own stance been more independent, we could have taken advantage of that rift but, alas, successive British governments have opted to let foreign policy be decided by White House instead of Whitehall.

Owing to Britain’s appalling official treatment of the Arab World, it is astounding that they hold us in such high regard. Yet they do. The reason may well be commonality in one of life’s basic pleasures – humour.

The Arab and British senses of humour are virtually identical, giving us an inherent advantage over the Americans or, indeed, any other nationality with the possible exception of the Japanese. The essence of Arab humour, like the British, is irony and double meanings. In spite of linguistic differences, the wit translates quite easily and effectively. Making a person laugh without effort is one of the keys to amicable relations, both social and commercial. This is especially true in a culture where social and commercial relations blend into each other.

As indicated earlier, a man with the name of Nick has a head start in the humour stakes provided he makes known his awareness of the double meaning, thereby obviating embarrassment all around. The absence of such awareness can have most unfortunate consequences.

A European banker had the surname of Kussumok, which happens to be Arabic for ‘your mother’s c.!’ (A standard curse, particularly in the Levant). Had he known this, he doubtless would have exploited the humour at his own expense. Unfortunately, he didn’t know it and, to make matters worse, he was in the habit of answering the telephone with his name only. Who knows how many Arab accounts were lost when the caller was greeted with the name, thought he was being sworn at and rang off in disgust!

To summarise, without expert advice one should approach Middle Eastern etiquette as the Highway Code tells us to interpret a green light: Proceed with caution.

 

1 Hazlitt, W (1985) The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Volume 4, p511 Nabu Press (2012) return to main text

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All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)