I’ve been to: the United Arab Emirates several times, and also to Syria, Kuwait, Israel, and Jordan. I’ve also been to many other countries in Central Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, which some people like to contentiously group with the Middle East: Turkey (where I lived for three years), Tunisia (where I lived for five months), Pakistan (where I’ve been several times), Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Uzbekistan.
Granted, when I travel I do have an advantage which gives me a greater comfort zone than most people. I speak the major languages of the area: Arabic, English, French, Turkish, and Urdu/Hindi. I also speak Spanish but that’s less useful in this region. That being said, you too can travel for business in the Middle East.
Here are some tips for you:
1. Grow your comfort zone. If you have never been to the Middle East, start with countries that have a strong tourism industry. These countries are used to foreigners and will be more forgiving of any cultural missteps or idiosyncrasies. Here are some good places in the wider region for “newbies” to start with: Morocco, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. These are also interesting countries from a business perspective: the United Arab Emirates is a major regional import hub, Turkey has a booming economy, and Morocco has a Free Trade Agreement with the US.
2. Do not make assumptions based on the movies and prejudices of our times. The US media has not painted this region in the best light. While there are grains of truth to some of the stereotypes, many of them are false. I love it when people comment on how covered up I must have had to been when I lived in Istanbul, Turkey. The truth is that I felt more comfortable or appropriate wearing sexier clothing in Istanbul than I do in the US. Women are fashionable, and especially in the business environment, the majority of the time you need to dress more stylishly than the average American business woman. My wardrobe is much nicer having lived in Istanbul. Also, in case you were unsure, the chances of you riding to your meetings on a camel are next to zero. If you do get a chance as a tourist, camel riding is a lot of fun!
3. Do not act like all of these countries are the same. Many of these countries will not appreciate you deciding that they are part of the Middle East just because they are in closer geographical proximity to the Middle East than the US is. Many of these countries have wildly different political systems, cultural norms, etc, and nuances abound.
Here’s one colorful example of how generalizing environments once got me into trouble: When I was in Tunisia during the reign of Ben Ali (before the Arab Spring), the police had extremely tight control over the country. The police protected the tourists very carefully because they were the main source of income for the country. So the Bedouin in the desert that you would meet were part of the industry, there to help create a richer touristic experience. When I went to Jordan, I made the mistake of assuming that the Bedouin of Petra were similarly “tame.” This was not the case, and I quickly learned that they operated with semi-autonomy from the government, and that the local police did not have control over them. So generalizing my knowledge of the Bedouin from one country to another was a potentially dangerous mistake. Feel free to ask me, if we talk on the phone or in person, how exactly I learned this.
4. Be confident- I hate it when I see American men telling American women that they cannot do business in the Middle East. I feel that they are mentally crippling these women, showing some of their own sexist tendencies, by taking away the confidence that the women can manage themselves. I’ve successfully done business in the Middle East. I’m not the daughter of an oil sheikh or a princess. While you need to be careful, so do men. Vulnerability and self-consciousness are not attractive traits in any business person, so if you are a woman acting like everyone in the Middle East is a wolf about to eat you, you may find it hard to do business. Being a woman can actually have its advantages in the Middle East.
5. Muslim does not equal terrorist or sexist pig. While not all people in the Middle East are Muslim, this is a really important point. The Prophet of Islam- Prophet Muhammad was basically given a chance to become a prosperous trader by a wealthy business woman who eventually became his wife (upon HER proposal to HIM). By the way, if anyone does question why you are traveling on business instead of taking care of a family, relating your knowledge of this powerful example of Muslim female business leadership will gain you a lot of respect. While there are some bad people, there are also tons of normal human beings. I do not generally feel disrespected when doing business in the Middle East.
6. Be respectful of locals. If you think that your culture is better than everyone else’s, it will definitely come across. Humility is a good thing. Show an eagerness to learn about the local culture from a position of respect, not derision. While I hope this is obvious to you, this is one of the areas where people make some of their biggest mistakes. People in the Middle East for the most part are not focused on the next dollar, but on building long-term commercial relationships with the right people who can grow in wealth with them year after year. This long-term, relationship focus means that they will assess your character, including your ability to interact with them respectfully, before doing business with you.
7. Talk to others who have been there before to get advice based on reality, not on paranoia. Ultimately, some parts of the Middle East are very safe, for women and men alike, and some parts are not safe. This article does not deny this last point. You have to know what you are getting yourself into, and sometimes you may not have the experience to understand where you will be safe. Talk to others "in the know" before you go, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. This advice applies in travel that you do to other regions of the world as well.
8. Take someone with you. Not everyone is adept at dealing with different cultures and environments. Consider taking someone with you to increase your comfort and confidence levels (you may even be able to have me come with you, enabling your business efficacy in other ways, too). It is a good business practice in general to have someone with you when on unfamiliar territory anywhere. While I travel alone for tourism often, for business I often find it advantageous to travel with someone else for many reasons. It does not have to be a man (unless you are going to Saudi Arabia, in which case in most cases you will want a male travel companion). The last time I traveled to the Middle East with someone else, it was with a female intern. Both of us were more than fine, and brought back to the US an amazing deal for our client. You’re welcome, Mr. Tax Man and US GDP.
Pretty much all of these tips apply to men as well as women. My point is simply this: Women can do good business in the Middle East. Do not limit yourselves.
Are you a woman who has traveled for business to the Middle East or the wider region? What was your experience? (Please specify countries in your response).