x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

In the Arab world, business and hospitality look a lot alike

Developing a relationship with an Arab is a matter of give and take, in both business and social circles.

From what I have said before about Arab hospitality you're probably thinking: "I'm going to make some Arab friends. They will invite me to their home, feed me good food and even lend me their expensive car. And hey, if I crash their car they won't expect me to pay for the repairs, either. And the best part is I don't have to do a thing for them."

Well, here's the thing: they might invite you into their homes without asking you to reciprocate, but it's only natural they expect you to. It all goes back to affirming intention. When you accept their generosity, are you looking to take advantage of them, or do you want to develop a relationship?

If you are developing a relationship you don't just take, take, take; there's give and take, even if you can't take your Arab friends to fancy restaurants, your house is much smaller or your car is less luxurious. It's the spirit of reciprocity they are looking for. They don't open their home in anticipation that you will do the same, but if you don't, it will convey the message that your motive was self-serving.

Say your Arab friend Sultan drops you off at home. "Sultan, please join me for a cup of coffee," you say. He might not accept the offer, excusing himself with a "I have work to catch up on, but next time". This means he has committed to having coffee at your home next time, which means you have to repeat the invitation so he can keep his promise.

On the other hand, if you happen to be dropping off Sultan and he invites you in for a coffee, you can be sure that he will tell you the whole menu to entice you. Would you be offending him if you decline? Absolutely not. Most Arab etiquette manuals insist that declining an invitation from an Arab is offensive, but I'm telling you that's not true. We understand you have other commitments, so we would most likely say: "OK. How about tomorrow after maghrib prayers? Or the day after? Or we could just go out for coffee?"

When you, in turn, invite him to share a cup of coffee, you show that you share the Arab value of hospitality. Arabs don't have a monopoly on hospitality; the Inuit are known to share this philosophy, and even among Americans there are pockets of people that share the same culture. The difference is that, with Arabs, hospitality is a way of life.

Ensure your first few interactions with new acquaintances follow a certain code. When you go to your Arab friend's place, for example, youy should try to leave shortly after the meal because the meal is considered to be the climax of conversation and entertainment. Stick to neutral topics such as the health of family members, travel, business trends, hobbies and shopping, as controversial topics may lead to unnecessary disharmony.