Arabic business – worth remembering when you speak about money.

Although theoretically we do know what European and Arab cultures differ from each other, we are still not always aware of the crucial faux pas, obvious to the inhabitants of distant regions, which we keep committing again and again  as a result of ignorance.

Minor, little meaningful gestures or words mean little from our perspective, but the Arab etiquette can have different opinion. It is worth exploring this subject in order to avoid unpleasant situations and misunderstandings, which may seem grotesque for us as residents of another cultural part of the world.

Let’s start with a topic of particular interest to us. The most important element distinguishing Western culture from Arab culture in terms of business is the mutual perception of a trade partner. Europeans, looking for a potential partner in the interest of their business, see him as a business partner, an element of the professional world, isolated from their private lives, and Arabs in every business partner can see a potential friend. But what does friendship mean for them?

Friendship in Arabic is a relationship, on the one hand very easy to establish and, on the other hand, much more binding bond than in Western culture. An important element of a friendly relationship is the non-refoulement of help – or at least not directly. The highly reprehensible and irrational behaviour will be direct refusal of assistance. If we can’t really promise it to a friend, the expression of uncertainty will be better, but above all, it is important to be reassured repeatedly that an attempt has been made. This principle stems from Arab consciousness, in which words and promises are often more important than deeds.[1]

What do the Arabs have to say about business meetings? During such a meeting, an important element is a few minutes long introduction to the conversation. When we talk to people we have already met before, we should first exchange the latest news from both professional and private life and ask about the health of our interlocutor and his or her family (although you should not be too inquisitive!). The appropriate behaviour on our part will be to wait patiently until the host himself or herself refers to the subject of interest, thereby giving a sign that he or she is ready for specific business talks. Given the very different way in which time is viewed from the European point of view, the transition to substance can be significantly delayed or even postponed at a much later date.

The wasta[2] is an interesting and somewhat original phenomenon from a European perspective. It is a popular form of intermediation used in dealing with various kinds of issues. It consists in asking the person who has greater consideration from the addressee of our request to submit on our behalf a request or an application. With the help of such an intermediary we can ask for an salary increase. This phenomenon is popular even in higher diplomatic or state circles. Because of the aforementioned rule that refusal is a reprehensible behaviour, wasta is the ideal solution to an awkward situation. For example, assuming that the interested party wants to make a request to the Minister of Infrastructure for permission to build a building in a place where this is not possible, the best solution would be to address an application to one of the advisors who, after consulting the Minister, will answer whether he or she should be asked for such a service at all – all in order not to offend a minister who would have to refuse, because as we mentioned, it is an unacceptable situation.

It is worth mentioning that Arabs do not like to be openly criticised. If there really is a need to criticise the Arab side of the agreement, it is better to start with strong praise and to say that it can be better. Cooling and praising often results in achieving the desired results.[3]

We should not forget, above all, the basic principles of Arab savoir-vivre. What matters is how we sit – a tannin, lying your legs on the armrests of the chair or any other careless way of sitting down during the conversation is an indication of disrespect for the interlocutor. The picture is also to show the interlocutor the soles of his shoes, which may happen to us accidentally when we sit comfortably in the chair. When in a standing position, it is reprehensible to lean against the wall or hold your hands in your pockets. Moreover, in the presence of the monarch or members of the royal family, it is also incorrect to cross the legs while sitting.

When visiting an Arabic home, make sure you take off your shoes. In order to check whether the owner of the house requires this from us, it is best to look at the behaviour of the household members or other guests. Let us remember that in most cases shoe removal is practised, especially in the Gulf states.

Greetings and farewells with men are accompanied by handshake, but when it comes to women, one should be aware that they are the ones who decide whether to give or not their hands. In addition, more traditional Muslims may refuse to give a woman a hand, and the very suggestion of doing so they might treat as an insult. When a new visitor enters the room, he or she should be raised to welcome him or her. It is not acceptable to wear everyday dress during formal meetings, as this could be considered a lack of respect for the host.

When visiting arabic friends, it is a good idea to bring some gifts with you. These may be flowers, for example, but in the Arab countries the tradition of giving live flowers planted in the ground is practiced rather than cut as it happens in Western culture. It will be a pleasure to give items brought from the West – the Arabs especially liked European crystal products, such as cups and vases.[4] The host is also obliged to hand over small items from his belongings as a gift if they please any of the guests. As far as accepting gifts is concerned, it is important that you always accept them with two hands and not open them in the presence of the person who gave them to us. Giving gifts when we are late is – a mandatory element. In business relations, however, care should be taken, as high-level officials or employees of certain companies cannot accept gifts in connection with their position – in this way, they could be exposed to the accusation of bribery.

If the visit is of a more official nature, the specific time at which to appear shall be specified. After the meal, let’s be prepared for at least two or three extras, of which it would be kind enough to accept at least one of them. Encouraging guests to eat is the host’s responsibility, so it is worth being ready to be encouraged repeatedly by the host. When eating meals, it is important to use only your right hand, because the left hand is considered unclean. However, if the meal is eaten from your own plate using a knife and fork, this rule is less restrictive.[5] After a meal is eaten, let’s give approval to the person who prepared it. In some countries, bringing in a cold water tray will signal that the meal is over. In the Gulf states, however, Cologne water is often sprayed in the air or incense is ignited before the meal ends.

If the meal takes place in a restaurant, Arabs almost always insist on paying for meals from their own pocket. The appropriate behaviour in this situation is to give up your will and offer you payment at the next meeting. When eating a large group of people, where everyone pays for themselves, it would be better to allow one person to pay and settle with them later than collecting money in a restaurant, because the Arabs will feel very embarrassed in this situation.

Labelling and knowledge of business customs is extremely important. Although we often underestimate their value, it is impossible not to notice that it is thanks to them that we are no longer just contractors. Proper understanding of intercultural relations and differences

In the perception of a business partner, instead of just co-workers, we can also gain friends and the atmosphere of cooperation and atmosphere, especially important,

In carrying out long-term projects, it can be a pleasure.


[1] M. K. Nydell Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society, Londyn 2012

[2]  Z arab. pośrednictwo, mediacja.

[3] N. Hopkins, Arab Society : Class, Gender, Power, and Development, Kair, 1997

[4] E. Khidayer, Arabski świat, Warszawa 2012.

[5] Tradycyjnie posiłki spożywane były rękoma, z jednego dużego naczynia.

§ [6] T.H. Djedidi, Imagining the Arab Other: How Arabs and Non-Arabs Represent Each Other, Londyn 2008,

Drawings: Jadwiga Kwiatkowska