Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Teaching in Egypt (2) – On doing business in the Middle East

One of my classes insisted one of our discussion topics for the course would be business. That sounded awfully boring to me, so I decided to spice things up a little by presenting them with an article on the cultural differences one might come across when doing business with the Middle East.

I found this article online with a few fairly offensive comments in it.

‘Many Westerners that have lived or worked in the Middle East might use the words chaotic, disorganised and frustrating when discussing doing business there. Although this is a matter of perception, it is true that business runs on very different tracks to business in the West.’
‘The Middle Eastern culture places more value on someone's word as opposed to a written agreement. A person's word is connected to their honour. Contracts are viewed as memorandums of understanding rather than binding, fixed agreements. Be sure to promise only things you can deliver. Failure to do so will result in loss of honour.’
‘Meetings can be chaotic. Always be prepared to exercise patience. Phone calls are taken during meetings and people may enter the meeting room unannounced and proceed to discuss their own agendas.’

One could broadly interpret the above statements as ‘Arab are chaotic, always late, very proud and can be very rude’. Kind of insulting, no?

Now, as I mentioned before, critical thinking is not the strongest point of most Egyptian university graduates, as any type of creative or independent thinking is discouraged in the Egyptian education system. Argue your own ideas, and fail; regurgitate exactly what your professor says, and pass with flying colours.

So reading the article made them feel uncomfortable, but they had the biggest trouble locating the source of their irritation and then vocalising their objections.

None of them picked up on the above statements as insulting. Instead they tried to argue that ‘the article focused too much on Islam’.

When I asked what was wrong with that – Islam is a big part of the Middle Eastern culture, after all – they concluded after some deliberation that, yes, shaking hands with women in Egypt is tricky because of religion and when doing business with a woman one should most definitely observe different rules than when doing business with a man. Because of the differences between man and woman in Islam. Also, don’t make appointments around prayer time, because most people will go pray first and thus attend late. Which is exactly what the article says.


They then stated that ‘this article is mostly about doing business in the Gulf, not in Egypt’, without even once referring to the offending parts of the article, but again citing the statements on Islam. ‘The Gulf countries are a lot stricter when it comes to religion.’

‘Well, it says Middle East, not Egypt, in the title’, I replied. ‘Egypt is part of the Middle East, not the definition of Middle East. The guidelines are for the whole of the Middle East, not just for Egypt.’

‘But Egypt is the most important country in the Middle East’, one student claimed. ‘We have the biggest economy, we make the most money.’


‘Are you sure about that?’, I replied. “Where does all the money in the Middle East come from? The rich oil countries, or Egypt? Is Saudi Arabia getting loans from the IMF? Or Kuwait, or Qatar? No. But Egypt is. So which countries are doing better financially, you think?’

One student, who happens to work in Kuwait, for a Saudi Arabian company, tried to help.
‘We are the biggest country in the Middle East, population wise, but certainly not the richest. Just look at the state of our economy.’

That last statement provided an easy way out of the discussion, as they then proceeded to talk about the pros and cons of the revolution. I happily let them, as I find that way more interesting than talking about doing business anyway.


After class, a few students came up to me. ‘Thank you for such a good article, miss Ester. We should practice arguing about topics more, we’re not good at it.’

And with a broad smile, I promised them ‘Oh, we will. We will.’ The topic for next class? Media in the Arab world. I can’t wait. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. shwayya, shwayya, u'll be raising little rebels with good critical skills...and they will all thank Miss Ester for that ;)

    1. Hey, what did your first comment say? Don't hold back the criticism, ya habibti ;)

    2. I did a mistake in English. I'm not holding back criticism..don't worry ;)
      Just couldn't afford to do a mistake knowing an english teacher would have noticed it ;)

  3. hahahaa miss your sessions and discussion ester

    1. Ha ha, miss your conspiracy theories too, Mostafa ;) You still taking classes with us? Haven't seen you around.