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Trainer Tips Working in the Middle East 4

Part Four

Business is booming in the Middle East. Economic reform, the rapid growth in privatised industry, and the increase in liberalisation have all made a significant contribution to ease the regulatory burden of doing business within the region.

The Weekend

The change of the official weekend in most countries has had a major impact. While the Levantine countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, have traditionally nominated their weekends as Friday and Saturday, the majority of the Persian Gulf countries followed a Thursday-Friday weekend. That was until recently. The exception is Saudi Arabia where the official weekend holiday for the government and some private businesses remains Thursday and Friday.

As the economies of these countries grew and businesses became more interrelated with Europe and the United States, the Thursday-Friday weekend meant there were only three shared business days between East and West. The combined effect of the different time zones coupled with the ability to only communicate on Mondays – Wednesdays created a fragmented effect on negotiations.

Due to the amount of business contacts I have in the region I had found it necessary to align my working week. In theory my week would be Sunday-Thursday. In practice however, by balancing the demands of European and Middle Eastern clients usually requires me to work a 6 day week.


While there have been considerable reforms in the region, corruption, as viewed within a Western context, still exists. I encountered this very recently although it did not involve me directly. I was cautious, shocked and became extremely careful who I spoke to about the progress I was making with regards the work on the contract. My reaction was based on my cultural values. I decided to explore this issue while socialising with some Arabic colleagues who were also working in this particular country. They explained that what was considered corrupt in my culture was a perfectly acceptable way of doing business in another culture. The Arabic colleagues also cautioned that my naivety would be considered suspicious in a culture where bribery is custom and common practice.

The issue of corruption and global business is all the more relevant with the UK government's planned new legislation which will require companies to ensure they have effective compliance and risk management strategies.

The Draft Bribery Bill was published on 25 March 2009 for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Under the legislation it will be a criminal offence for someone – directly or through a third party – to offer, promise or give a bribe (whether or not financial), and it will also be a criminal offence for someone to request, agree to receive, or accept a bribe. The bill will also make it a “discrete offence” to offer, promise or give a bribe to a foreign public official, including those working for international organisations that have as their members, governments or countries.

The government's Draft Legislative Programme, published on 29 June 2009, set out plans to introduce a Bribery Bill in the next Parliamentary session. The bill will:
• Create an offence of negligent failure by commercial organisations to prevent bribery
• Support high ethical standards in UK businesses
• Tackle the threat that bribery poses to economic progress and development around the world.

Further information about the proposed legislation is available from the Ministry of Justice site:

What effect this legislation would have on business dealings with countries with a different business culture to our own is yet to be determined; time as in all things; will tell.

Legal Support

As I have mentioned in previous articles, the Middle East is an incredibly diverse region composed of many different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups; cultural divergences are vast even within individual countries. Therefore, there is a need to be familiar with at least a basic knowledge of the particular area within the region in which you are doing business. If formal contracts are involved always make sure you find a lawyer with extensive experience of the country within which you are doing business.

In Jordan I use the legal firm Trimark, primarily for protection of intellectual property and web registrations. A well connected legal representative, with plenty of “Wasta”; an Arabic expression that loosely translates into ‘who you know’ or 'clout' (it refers to using one’s influence or connections to get things done) will almost certainly be able to recommend other forms of legal assistance.


Having a legal representative with “Wasta” is important because many of the procedures and documents associated with the conduct of business in the region are carried out or only available in Arabic. And those who work in public sectors often cannot read English. Translation therefore is an essential service. Never, ever, sign documents that are not in English!

You will encounter a reluctance to sign contracts. I usually enforce contracts for consultancy work. Recently I went to the extreme of writing my own contract and having it checked out by a Lawyer prior to presenting it for agreement, signatures and of course the official company stamp.

For training programmes, I provide my terms and conditions and insist in an official purchase order. I also state terms and conditions for payments clearly on invoices including the currency in which payment should be made.

Tribal Influences

When working in Yemen I learnt never to underestimate the influence of tribes and the role of ‘Sheikhs’ as tribal leaders who influence a country’s judicial, political, and security framework. Although government and constitution exists, the Sheikhs have significant influence. Failure to negotiate with the representatives of the network of tribes can result in delays and in extreme cases, social unrest. Many organisations employ local field officers to negotiate with tribal leaders on a range of issues from access rights through to sustainable development projects. How the new UK legislation will address the complexities involved in satisfying the demands of the sheikhs who care first for money, followed by power and influence, and finally ideology, is puzzling.

Transparency International produce a table of 180 countries based on perceived levels of corruption, Follow the link below to view the table:

As mentioned before the above comments are made based on a considerable amount of experience and time working in a number of countries within the Middle East region. They form a overview of what someone new to the region might expect, but should not be seen as comprehensive or complete. If you are considering working in the region, or anywhere else for that matter you should always review the Foreign and Commonwealth office web site for up to date facts, figures and advice.

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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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