Negotiating in the Middle East Can be a Real Challenge

As featured in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of Dynamic Export eMagazine.

The Middle East is a richly diverse region which consists of traditional trading societies and a population well-known for its business savvy. Sophisticated, well-travelled, multi-linguals make tough negotiators on home soil but are equally confident in western settings to drive a tough bargain.

Whilst driving a win/win solution may be a common goal, the process by which negotiations come to such a conclusion in the Middle East is underpinned by cultural tendencies that differ from western norms.

It is therefore worth taking the time to understand a few of the basic cultural nuances and concepts that may present unique challenges along the way. Having an awareness of these cultural dynamics can help you frame your approach and better align your strategy. Islam is central to the ways of life and business Most societies in the Middle East are governed by Islam, a system of beliefs and social behaviour which have remained consistent throughout the centuries. This is an important aspect that underscores life and business and, equally, negotiations. Islam in the Middle East, unlike Christianity in western societies, is not something that an individual chooses to follow but rather, it is a way of life and their conduct will be influenced accordingly.

Schedules, work days, social interactions, entertaining and business protocol are just a few areas that will inevitably be influenced by the principles of Islam.

The holy month of Ramadan, for example, presents definite challenges for businesses as productivity falls significantly during this month with most businesses operating reduced hours. The 2017 month of Ramadan is from May 26 to June 24.

Know your counterpart

It may seem an obvious statement but it is nonetheless central to conducting negotiations in the Arab region. Formality of greetings, clear and distinct lines of authority, hierarchical seating and use of titles are just some of the important elements to observe, respect and apply in negotiation settings. Identify the obvious leader in negotiations and the senior decision maker. They are people with whom it is crucial to build a direct and trusting relationship. When challenges call for alternate solutions, it is through these important relationships and networks that desirable outcomes will be achieved.

Prepare a strong agenda

Don’t be alarmed if discussions depart far and wide from set agenda items. When this happens, listen and use these segues and deviations in conversations to your advantage. Start connecting issues raised to reveal the bigger picture. Be open to new elements introduced along the way as part of the process and show respect to proposals and ideas – even those which may warrant push-back.

Communication is key

Communication is indirect and body language, eye contact and other non-verbal cues should all be taken into account as part of any interaction. Learn to appreciate the context within which the exchange is taking place as it will help decipher what will most certainly be left unsaid – “no”. Applying the language of diplomacy when needing to disagree on issues is essential to ensuring the dialogue continues.

Maintaining ‘face’ is an important and serious issue and it is best to withhold any immediate negative reaction. Reacting in a negative fashion can potentially undo much of the progress. It is expected that different views will be offered as part of negotiations but it is important to do so in a respectful manner.

The end goal

What is of greatest importance? The contract you might sign or the relationships you may cultivate? Both may be the answer but in middle-eastern contexts, priority must be given to relationships. Developing all possible contacts with the decision maker and within their sphere of influence is required. Your efforts need to focus on building trust and allowing your counterparts to get to know you well and vice versa. This means that generally, negotiations take time. Allow for this in your planning.

Engaging successfully at any level with business people from diverse cultures requires some understanding of the cultural values that motivate them, drive their behaviour and communication style. Building cultural capability in this way can help you identify and maximise the opportunities presented in foreign markets.