Avoid 3 common mistakes made by ‘Westerners’ when entering Middle East markets

Blog contribution by Emad Elmasr.
The Middle East (ME) is often associated with many stereotypes and myths. The majority of European and American medical device companies entering the Middle East market are smart and well intentioned. However, they seem to make the same mistakes time after time.

Mostly, these mistakes are related to cultural differences and the belief that business is conducted in the same way across all Arab countries. As goes for the ‘United States of Europe’, the reality is quite different. Before doing business in ME, it is advisable for foreign medical device companies to learn about regional diversity, business culture, meeting protocol and negotiation techniques.

Here are three common mistakes Westerners make that often doom potential partnerships before they begin.

Mistake #1 – Underestimating the value of relationships

Arabs do not separate business from personal life. Business revolves around personal relationships, trust and honor. It is crucial that business relationships are built on mutual friendship and respect. Arabs are fairly informal with names when doing business and generally address people by their first names. Europeans and Americans often get into trouble early on because they maintain a wall between personal and professional relationships. Here’s an example. How many colleagues are your “friends” on Facebook? Probably only a few. However, you are probably linked to most of your colleagues on LinkedIn. Why? Because LinkedIn is in general perceived for business relationships; Facebook is for personal relationships. In the Middle East, that distinction is blurred and it is important to understand this.

Middle Eastern culture also places EQUAL value on someone’s word AS written agreements. Contracts are viewed as Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) rather than binding. When signing agreements, be sure to promise only things that you can deliver, as failing to do so results in a loss of honor. This goes back to the issue of maintaining healthy relationships.

Mistake #2 – Discounting the importance of religion

First, let’s clear up a few things.

  1. Arabs (mostly) speak Arabic. People from Iran and Turkey are not Arab.
  2. Only 20% of all Muslims live in the Middle East
  3. Arab does not automatically mean Muslim. There are millions of Christian Arabs, although the majority of MENA residents are Muslim.

Don’t underestimate the effect of religion on people’s values, rules and community relations. For example, Friday is the day for major prayers that are obligatory for all male Muslims. Friday/Saturday is also the weekend for most MENA countries with the exceptions of Lebanon and Turkey.

Mistake #3 – Impatience

Americans (especially) and Europeans find this issue to be frustrating. American business culture is based on the strength of the individual. Americans, and many Europeans, place a high value on logic, speed and decisiveness. Contrast this with Japanese business culture which is more deliberate and team centric. When forging a new relationship, Westerners often want things to move along quickly, under the faulty assumption that the obvious logic of their business proposal will clearly be seen on paper. Again, Arabs take the long view and look beyond logic, ink and paper. The personal relationship is vital to them.

Never make an appointment to meet with a ME business partner too far in advance, as changes in personal circumstances will often impact the fixed appointment. Always confirm a meeting verbally or by email or fax few days ahead of time. Initial meetings are about building trust and friendly relationships. Do not get offended if you notice meetings are not following agendas or targets. While Arabs emphasize punctuality, they rarely practice it themselves. However, punctuality is expected from foreigners.

Conclusion – Focus on relationships

The bottom line is that if your Middle Eastern business partner can trust you, they will do business with you. If you develop and maintain a strong relationship with a partner in the Middle East, you are sure to maintain that relationship going forward without worrying (within reason) that occasional problems, price rises or new competition might quickly derail years of effort.

Being aware of cultural differences when conducting business in foreign countries may seem like common sense, but sensitivity to these issues can prove crucial to success in Middle Eastern medical device markets. Beyond proper email and phone communications, timely responses to requests for proposals and other necessary business practices, the importance of fostering strong personal relationships with prospective business partners and customers in the Middle East cannot be overstated..

About Emergo Group

Emergo is a single resource for helping you access the largest and fastest growing markets worldwide. With local offices in 24 countries, we offer the expertise to help you research new markets, comply with national medical device and IVD regulations, maintain control of your device registrations and partner with high quality distributors.