x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bridging the gulf

Feature Proper business etiquette? Gifts or cards at Eid? Jeremy Williams has made a career of teaching people what they should know when moving to the Gulf.

Jeremy Williams has spent 10 years living in the Gulf.
Jeremy Williams has spent 10 years living in the Gulf.

Most expats, it seems, make a conscious decision to conform to the customs and culture of the Gulf before moving here. After they've arrived, most dress respectably, travel widely and some even learn Arabic: they try, above all, to "fit in". Yet, according to the author of a best-selling guide on etiquette in the region, Don't They Know It's Friday?: Cross-Cultural Considerations for Business and Life in the Gulf, which has sold almost 100,000 copies and this month sees its 10th reprint, too many Westerners "don't understand anything of the Arab world and are quite confused and frightened by Islam." It's a damning indictment by an author who now lives in Britain but was a resident in the Gulf for 10 years, and, he claims, "the situation shows no sign of getting better".

For Williams, who started giving advice to expats while he was the defence attache at the British embassies in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain during the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War, foreigners still need lessons on how to behave. Perhaps surprisingly, he finds that he is often teaching the same lessons that he was 20 years ago. "People would come to me for advice who were quite innocent of Arab behaviour, and I used to say 'Don't they know that?', and the answer was no." Such is the lack of progress that Williams now travels the world giving seminars on cross-cultural awareness to businesses operating in the region. "I charge huge fees for telling people stuff I thought they knew," he says. "For example, a lot of people think Iranians are Arabs, or that all Arabs are Muslims."

For the British, Williams argues, decades of political correctness have failed to make an impression. "Our manners have slipped worldwide. We have an 'I know my rights' attitude without any sense of responsibility." Williams says that some expats act with an almost wanton lack of cultural awareness. "The behaviour of some expats is quite disgraceful. People see sun, sea and sand and they think it's Spain. They forget it's a Muslim country and that they should pay respect to the culture and behaviours of the host country. For tourists there is some measure of excuse, but for people living here, it's completely disgraceful."

Williams says that despite such behaviour, most Gulf citizens were very tolerant. "The ability to ignore things here is very important. The Gulf is generally very welcoming, Arabs are fantastic hosts and they won't openly condemn Western behaviour. They are aware that this is what we do." "I think people don't realise that a plane takes you from A to B and that B might be different from A," Williams says. "The world is so accessible now. It's easier to get into clashes with people."

Williams says that Ramadan and Eid was a particularly confusing time for western expats, who sometimes found it difficult to understand the concept of fasting and saw iftar as a chance to indulge in huge buffets. "Ramadan is a joyful time for Muslims, but it is also jolly tiring and slightly stressful, so the Western person should make allowances. Iftar is the breaking of the fast with a date or water before prayer, and the big family meal comes later. You see these iftar tents outside hotels, but it's not really supposed to be a massive feast."

Expats also make the mistake of expecting invitations to events. "Quite a lot of Westerners wait for an invite and then complain when they don't get one, but that's not the deal at all," says Williams. "That's not how desert democracy works. All are equal under God and an important person will think he has to keep an open door, and the citizen would have no hesitation about turning up and going in."

Gift-giving too can be a minefield. "Eid is a joyous time at the end of the holy month and a very important time in the year for celebration. The thing to do is to send Eid cards as a way of keeping in contact with people and showing that you understand. It would not be appropriate for Westerners to give gifts at this time, a card is all that is required." In his seminars, Williams starts with the basics of Arab geography and Islam, and stresses the importance of preparation and patience. In his book, Williams describes in detail how a knowledge of Gulf business etiquette, heritage and culture, timing, clothing, language, food and entertaining is critical to a successful business deal. Yet he stresses the initial importance of having something worth selling ("in this respect, there's nothing special about the Gulf") and of meeting people face to face in business.

The ongoing need for advice is echoed by Omar al Busaidy, the senior commercial attaché at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi, who assists British businesses thinking of setting up in Abu Dhabi. "At the end of the day it doesn't matter if you are a FTSE 100 company, businesspeople here look at who you are as a person. Generally, you have to come here, make connections and go around with your business card." If you are looking to deal with the Government in Abu Dhabi, it's important to set up a company here. It's extremely important to show commitment and try to employ nationals to invest in and utilise local talent."

Busaidy says the biggest mistake British businesses made in the UAE was that they had a tendency to patronise. "What tends to happen when British businessmen try to communicate is that local people feel as if they are being talked down to,"he says. "Instead of using simple language they use fancy words, and they tend to get straight down to business soon after meeting someone. With some people here that works, but ideally you should ask people how their weekend was and how the family is. You might have a 45-minute meeting, but 40 minutes should be about you and five minutes about the business. It's all about building relationships." It is considered an act of politeness in the Gulf, Busaidy says, to have business cards and presentations translated into Arabic, and to learn a few basic greetings. "It shows respect if you are looking to cater to a local market, and shows people that you have actually thought about them," he says.

Yet times are changing, and both experts concede that there are now many Emiratis who conduct business in an entirely Western way. "In the old days things were much more laid back, and more confused," Williams says. "Now Gulf nationals don't just think of their own country or city. They could be buying airports or telecommunications businesses from Australia to Azerbaijan. Women have also become much more visible in business."

Despite this, Williams still argues that it pays to mug up on basic Gulf office etiquette in business meetings. "Always make the seat on your right available to the person coming in, and don't initiate the act of shaking hands with a Gulf woman," he advises. But what if you break the cross cultural rules? Reassuringly, Williams has some words of comfort. "I watched an American friend, Hank, go into a business meeting and break every cross-cultural rule there is," he says. "Colleagues left the room and says 'How did you get on with Hank?' They said that he was indeed ghastly but they signed a contract with him because it was a fantastic deal." Williams says that foreigners needed to understand that there was a point in business relations when the time for niceties is over. "This is when I say don't worry about the menu, bring out the pudding trolley," he says. "Get to the essence of things. Don't talk about the founding of your company in 1804, what are you offering me? A shredder? Bring the thing out!"

Williams concedes, too, that over-sensitivity to cultural matters and a widespread fear of causing offence prevents many expats from interacting at all. "Quite a lot of people, not knowing how to behave and not knowing anything about Islam, think it's better not to do something, but the thing is that if you know you can proceed decently. Be yourself and get to know people. Learn something about your host country and enjoy yourself."

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