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Working in the Middle East: Trainer Tips 1

Scene setting

My name is Joy Wilson and several years ago I went to the Middle East to deliver a training course in Bahrain. I was representing a small consultancy based in the UK. Their principal consultant had considerable experience in the region and obviously keen to ensure that my lack of cultural understanding did not impact my effectiveness. He provided me with a list of do’s and don’ts. That list was full of important tips, however, at the time I didn’t understand why they where important and I wonder what effect this endless list of rules had on my confidence and my delivery. I felt that a better understanding of culture I was to encounter would have put that list of rules into context and enhanced my understanding.

I regularly receive calls from individuals who have been presented with an opportunity to work in the Middle East and feel quite daunted by the prospect. The Middle East is a part of the world that has been the focus of media frenzy. There are many political and historical reasons for this focus; however, there is a considerable amount of information out there that is misleading. It would be irresponsible to advise you to ignore the media but, do get advice from people with hands on and current experience in the region. Always make sure to visit the relevant embassy web site for the country you are visiting, generally these are listed FCO web site: where you will also find information about visa entry and medical requirements.

This is the first of a series of articles which aim to provide you with information, knowledge, tips and links. My aim is to help to clarify some of the generalisations and myths and make sense of customs to enable you to help you make an informed choice about whether to accept an assignment in the region.

In my attempts to describe values and cultural influences I have tried to avoid generalisations that lead to stereotyping. I hope I have achieved that balance by providing a focus on the strong collectivist culture rather than individual behaviours.

Avoid Generalisations

There are approx 23 Arab countries with combined population of some 325 million people spanning two continents and what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The media often generalise when commenting about the region and its culture. Such generalisations should be treated with caution. Whilst comment in the media may provide an insight, the value of this information may not reflect accurately a particular culture as this will vary dramatically among countries and within countries.

There is no “one” Arab culture or society. Arabic people are diverse but share a common history, language, and traditions. Although predominantly Muslim, many Arabs are Christian or Jewish. There are very large Christian communities in Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, so, it is important to note that the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are not interchangeable—most Muslims are not Arab, and many Arabs are not Muslim.

Only in Hollywood

Before my first visit to the region I had in my mind a set of stereotypical representations of an Arab! This image was of a Bedouin and obviously heavily influenced by how the media portrays Arabs. Sorry to disappoint but Arabs do not look like Bedouins, nor Belly Dancers. The Bedouin image is about as typical of Arabs as a man wearing a bowler hat and reading the Times newspaper is of a typical English male. Arabs differ; many have blond hair, fair skin, and blue or green eyes. Others have African features and it’s not uncommon to see fair-skinned Arabs in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking because people appear western they will have western values. Many Arabs have been educated in the west and can demonstrate a strong connection with our culture. The majority will respect a strong Islamic belief system. To underestimate the influence of Islam on society would be a mistake. Islam is much more than a religion and permeates family, values, business practices where emphasis is placed on ethics, respect for seniority both in rank and age and the concept of saving face through the use of compromise to solve conflict.


In the west we encourage an individualistic culture taking pride in individual accomplishments and what makes us unique, special, or different from others. Conversely the culture of most Middle Eastern countries is oriented more toward collectivism than individualism. A strong belief in a collectivist culture is that personal value comes not from individual deeds, but from social standing and group affiliation. A person is fundamentally defined by, and valued for, belonging or “Wasta” (your influence or connections). This means that the group holds great power over the individual’s behaviour. The consequence is that individuals develop hidden agendas to ensure connectivity to others and enhance their value.

The concept of collectivism can often change the expected outcome of a activity. You may notice a less competitive approach and an increased need to collaborate as information and data is processed around the context of relationships and collective value.

Activities involving Feedback

If you are inexperienced in this region be very careful about the how you approach topics that involve providing feedback. Subjects such as assertiveness, conflict management and feedback can be tricky and should be approached with sensitivity.

While the behaviours you expect are second nature in our culture these behaviours may well be culturally discouraged in this region.

Often people from Middle Eastern and Arabic cultures prioritize their social image and the harmony of relationships over directness or sincerity and consider it impolite to confront, disagree with someone or to refuse a request. Therefore it is not unusual for people to express insincere sentiments in order to avoid conflict; this is not an attempt to deceive, but “appropriate” behaviour to preserve the relationship and save face.

Group Leadership& Group Behaviour

Because of the strong hierarchical culture, teams tend to work as a group of individuals who report to a strong leader. In the workplace this lateral approach can be quite effective because strong bonds and loyalty exist between individuals. However in a training event those bonds may not exist between individuals in your group and therefore progress during team based activities can be slow and people can be quite suspicious on each other. People can be accustomed to a direct and paternalistic management style and a consequence of this can be lack of initiative.

The influence of a strong hierarchical culture and respect for authority (rank) and seniority (age) creates difficulties when selecting leaders for team activities. The leader that you appointed may be uncomfortable because of the presence of a more senior person in the team and that person will naturally assume leadership. The leader will involve the team in consensus style discussion but the final decision about how to approach the task will be his.

The above comments are insights that I have gained from a number of years experience in a number of different countries in the Middle East. In forthcoming articles I will venture to comment on aspects such as classroom behaviour, language and dress.

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Contributor Profile

Joy Wilson

Joy Wilson.Joy has enjoyed working in the Middle East and North Africa in commercial organisations and sustainable development projects. With over 10 year’s experience of developing competency based initiatives and designing bespoke training and development solutions. Joy is an experienced and enthusiastic trainer with a huge amount of practical knowledge about working in the region.

Click here to view Joy’s profile

If your organisation is planning to expand to the Middle East and you feel a little apprehensive about the readiness of your team for multicultural working.

You may like to consider the “Working in a World of Difference” cross cultural development programme, combined with The International Profiler cultural assessment your employees will explore and receive feedback on 22 different attitude, knowledge and skill dimensions, required for international and multi-cultural working.

Contributor: Joy Wilson

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