The Middle East region includes many countries. The following general tips are intended to help those who are traveling for business or leisure to the UAE, Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Because the region is highly influenced by its Islamic culture, day-to-day norms are often guided by religion. So it is recommended to learn some basics about Islam before interacting with people from the region.
When meeting new people, men typically shake hands with each other. However, women shake hands and kiss on the cheek two or three times. For example, people in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan kiss two times. But people in the UAE, KSA and Egypt tend to kiss three or more times.
It is generally considered inappropriate to shake hands with the opposite gender because of religious reasons. Therefore, if people do not want to shake hands, they place their hand on the chest to politely decline.
Tip: To be safe, wait for the other person to approach you and respond with the same greeting style. It can be hard to remember or predict the greeting style in each country and those educated abroad may also try to adapt to you.
Middle Easterners show interest and affection by being generous. This is often done by offering a guest food and drinks.
Tip: Do not accept an invitation for food or drinks the first time it is made, as it is a sign of greed. Rather, let the host insist a couple of times before accepting. Not accepting the offer, however, is considered akin to not liking the host. If you must decline, offer a polite excuse such as “already being late for another meeting” and promise to accept the invite next time “whenever that is”. Remember that confrontations and being direct are not culturally appreciated. So avoid explanations such as, “I don’t really like this kind of food” or “The last time I ate this, I got really sick.”
The term “Inshallah” is frequently used in the Islamic world, especially the Middle East. It is Arabic for “God Willing”. The word may mean yes, no, or maybe, depending on context and is often used as a response when making future plans. For example, when asked if there will be a meeting next week, the proper response would be “Inshallah”. Using the term “Inshallah” removes responsibility from the speaker if the promise is not fulfilled. It means that God did not intend for it to happen. In some places, such as the KSA, due to the influence of outside cultures, the term has strayed from its original meaning and is sometimes used to avoid taking responsibility.
Tip: Always observe the additional body language and non-verbal cues of the speaker to know which “Inshallah” is being used. Don’t necessarily take the terms “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, or “Inshallah” at face value.
Know Your Geography
How good are your Middle East geography skills? Test your knowledge of the map with this fun quiz.