Travel Business CPR

Where’s the lamb?

A long Arabian thobe billows as its wearer climbs the steps of a waiting jet. A contract is signed over rounds of thick Arab coffee instead of a three-Martini lunch. Success in the Middle East business world demands sensitivity to such contrasts and trademarks, particularly in the hotel and travel industry where welcoming clients to a “home away from home” is so important.

Don’t be fooled by the thobe and okhal (gown and headdress). The new generation of Arab was not born in tents or raised riding camels. Business and political leaders are largely Western educated; they have a historical tradition of savvy trading often combined with business degrees from British or American universities. Experience, unfortunately, has told them to expect the Westerner to be patronizing or condescending, so the Western business representative must carefully still this mistrust.

Cultural sensitivities are especially inflamed these days with the publication of the notorious Danish cartoons. You may believe that free speech includes the unlimited right to say or print anything no matter how offensive it is; or you may believe there is an invisible line of decency that should not be crossed, even if crossing it is perfectly legal. In the hospitality industry, however, we have an extra obligation to be…hospitable, which includes demonstrating a sincere respect and awareness of other beliefs and customs.

Many Arabs are guarding their religious and cultural traditions even as they make their way in the international business world. It can be very difficult and sometimes impossible for a Westerner, especially a non-Arabic speaking and non-Muslim, to “break the ice” with potential Arabic-speaking Muslim clients. Personal courtesies – and insults – are drawn from Islam. Socializing is important. Patience is the key, says one Arab proverb – and that may mean many rounds of coffee before a contract is even discussed. Once the contract is signed, however, the relationship is lasting.

There are also ways to set the tone at hotels in the Middle East or hotels frequented by Middle Easterners in other parts of the world. Carefully hired Middle Easterners can often speed the process when they work for Western employers in upper level sales and marketing positions. This will help convince the host country that you want to do business with them and not in spite of them.

The nationality of employees at the other end of the scale is important too. A Saudi Arabian construction executive in Riyadh once asked me why he should come to a particular Western hotel when he wasn’t even able to order in his own language, because the waiter didn’t speak Arabic (only English and Pakistani). Countries like Egypt, North Yemen and Sudan have many expatriates who could be hired in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Training and promotions could foster company loyalty and create a qualified pool of local talent.

Within a hotel, special services can be tailored to attract the Arab businessman and give the company a reputation for sensitivity. There are Bibles in American hotels all over the United States; why not a Koran in hotels in Muslim countries? Some small sign in the room could point the way to Mecca. It would be easy to provide written notice of daily praying times and nearby mosques, perhaps even a prayer rug in the room itself.

Hotel dining rooms often take note of Ramadan, but there are other Islamic feast days when similar attention would be appreciated. American executives usually find Christmas and Thanksgiving turkey on the menu; their Arab counterparts should be able to order lamb for Eid al-Adha or special dishes for Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

Traditions based on Islam and ancient cultures govern business and society throughout the Middle East. Sincere attention to these details can be like Ali Baba’s “open sesame” to Western businesses seeking to grow in the Middle East.

By Tharwat Abouraya, CTIE

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