In America, taking Fridays off, pushing back appointments and hesitating to promote your credentials could severely limit a company's or individual's success. In the Arab world, it's business as usual. Americans must learn cultural nuances to succeed in that region.

In America, taking Fridays off, pushing back appointments and hesitating to promote your credentials could severely limit a company’s or an individual’s success.

But all three are common in the Arab world, where practices that seem odd to Americans are often business as usual, said Soumaya Khalifa, an Egypt-born diversity consultant specializing in Arabic-speaking countries.

To help people learn to navigate cultural differences in this vitally important region, Ms. Khalifa is teaching an all-day class called “Arab World Insider: Secrets to Successful Business in the Arab World.” 

The class will be held at Emory University’s Center for Lifelong Learning on Wednesday, March 25, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

To hear Ms. Khalifa tell it, the class couldn’t be more timely.

She cited plentiful natural resources, high per capita incomes and geographic location as some economic advantages that many Arab countries enjoy.

Population doesn’t hurt, either.  With some 280 million people, the Arab world at once represents one of the most misunderstood and promising markets for American goods and services, she said.

“A lot of times when American businesses … send employees and people particularly to the Arab world, they pick the person that is the most successful, the most technically savvy,” Ms. Khalifa said. “And they overlook the culturally literate person, and I think it needs to be a combination of all.”

The Arab world is not monolithic, and the specific experience of doing business will vary from country to country.  But there are commonalities.

Although varying in dialect, the Arabic language is the same, and about 85 percent of the population in the Arab world is Muslim.  The structured religious life often impacts business in ways that Americans might not foresee, Ms. Khalifa said. 

For instance, in most cases, don’t expect to set up Friday meetings, she said. Most Muslims go to the mosque for congregational prayer on Fridays, making it a holiday similar to American Sundays.

And don’t be surprised if an Arab client gets up from a meeting and takes a quick break without explanation.  He or she is likely answering the call to prayer, which comes five times a day. 

It’s not only religion that could throw a wrench into a deal, Ms. Khalifa said.

She cites the story of an American businessman who lost a million-dollar deal because he told his Arab business partner, “Now I feel better, I’ve heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.”

The Arab partner didn’t get the idiom.

While Americans are known as sticklers for appointments, Arabs and some other cultures consider times as general benchmarks, not hard and fast rules.

This can be “aggravating” to Americans, who are “very much fixed on time,” Ms. Khalifa added.  The key is to remain “patient and resilient and not to take that personally.” 

And Arabs generally focus more on the family or the group, in contrast to the American ideals of individual achievement.

“As an American going overseas to the Arab world, talking about me and my accomplishment – that would not necessarily be looked favorably upon,” said Ms. Khalifa, who lives in Peachtree City, an Atlanta suburb.

Perceptions can be vital, she said, in cultures where business is often predicated on personal relationships.

An Arab generally expects to have a friend at the end of a business deal, and a two-hour initial meeting might only include 10 minutes of conversation about business.

“It’s all about building the relationship, knowing the person,” she said. 

To register for Ms. Khalifa’s class, go to the Emory Web site here


As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...