Freedom, Women And Business Etiquette In The Arab World

05/09/2016 10:48 | Updated 05 September 2016

Watching Theresa May walking through the famous black door of Number 10 got me thinking about how fraught our the Arab world is with so many misconceptions and stereotypes, especially when it comes to women and their place in public life as professionals and officials.

While the UK was welcoming its second woman Prime Minister, the woman ministers, who make up almost one third of the United Arab Emirates' cabinet, were getting on with their work; Jordan was stepping up its preparations to host the FIFA under 17 women's World Cup in September; and lawmakers in Egypt were debating amendments to the inheritance laws that could be a game-changer for Egyptian women.

I am not going to go into a comparison of the status of women around the world nor do I intend to go through the many achievements in recent years of some of the most amazing Arab women; my focus here is on practical cultural awareness or what is now known as 'Cultural Intelligence'.

Freedom, right and wrong, honour and shame are not universal concepts. They mean different things to different people and their bases of reference are not the same across all cultures. Do not fall into the trap of assuming that women who do not drive or women who wear the veil are somehow oppressed and will 'see the light' once they learn more about Western gender equality.

You shouldn't make assumptions about Arab women and what they need based on your own cultural beliefs and values. The concept of 'personal freedom' is a Western cultural belief and is central to the way of life in many nations. However, other cultures, including Arab culture, place more value on identification with one's place and role in society. That is what Brooks Peterson called 'the freedom versus identity continuum'.

The key to Cultural Intelligence is to have an open mind and to approach situations with a degree of curiosity while accepting that things are neither better nor worse but simply different. Remember that we deal with people not cultures and each person has his or her own self-culture and should be treated and respected as an individual.

For starters, let us clarify two basic misconceptions:

1) The Arab world is not one big lump -- it is made of 22 different countries -- each with its own unique local culture and traditions. Having said that, there are common cultural beliefs and values that tie the region together that can justify some generalizations.

2) Arab and Muslim is not the same thing. In fact, only 20% of Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim.

As a professional or official traveling for business in the Arab world here are a few pointers to help you avoid a lot of stress and awkwardness.

Shaking hands

Starting off on the right foot is very important in setting the general tone of a meeting. A handshake is the accepted business greeting across the Arab world, however, for various religious and social reasons, a woman may choose not to shake hands with a man and would instead place her right hand over her heart with a slight nod of the head. A man may also choose to do the same when greeting a woman. I know it might feel like you have been snubbed when you put out your hand and the other person doesn't reciprocate, but please do not be offended and just respond with the same gesture.

Communicating in a male dominated society

Arab women have made remarkable strides in businesses and government across the Arab world. However, there is still plenty of room for development and it remains a patriarchal and hierarchical society which favors an indirect style of communication that helps people avoid confrontation and conflict. This is a major motivator of behavior across the Arab world -- the objective is to maintain harmony and save face. This can be done in several ways, including by an influential third party or through the use of parables and stories to convey a message.

This principle is more sensitive if you are a woman dealing with a senior male executive. You need to be extra considerate and careful not to appear to be confrontational or disrespectful while at the same time being assertive. Business in the Arab world is personal and depends heavily on relationships of trust, and it takes time and commitment to build those relationships.

First impressions

While the level of social conservatism varies from one Arab country to the other, it is always best to err on the side of caution. Saudi Arabia is the only country which requires women of any nationality to wear the "abaya" -- a long black cloak that you wear over your clothes -- and in most areas in Saudi women are also required to cover their hair with a loose black scarf when out in public. This dress code only applies in Saudi Arabia but not in any other Arab country where women can wear regular business attire keeping in mind to avoid anything that is too tight fitting, short or revealing.

The most important rule you must keep in mind when interacting with Arab women in the workplace is to not be deceived by their external appearance. Whether she is dressed in fashionable Western-style clothes or wearing the traditional Islamic hijab, it is always better to behave and interact with her in a reserved and conservative manner. Do not assume that just because she is in a senior position and wearing a designer business skirt-suit that she thinks and behaves like a western business woman. The rules of her society still apply and determine what is appropriate behaviour and what is not.

So if you have a business engagement with an Arab woman and you are not quite sure if it would be appropriate to meet over a lunch or coffee in a restaurant or hotel lobby, take your cue from her, follow her lead; she will decide what is appropriate for her.

This blog post is written by Rana F. Nejem with excerpts from her book When in the Arab World; An Insider's Guide to Living and Working with Arab Culture.