Do you remember your first time being invited to a meal in another country?
I was petrified.
I had all these conflicting thoughts and fragments of advice running through my head:
Leave food on your plate. Eat it all. Sit up straight. Lean back in your chair. Eat quietly. Burp as loud as you can.
It’s a challenge to know what other people might be expecting of you at mealtimes. Every culture has different norms about eating.
We’re sure you’ve read some pretty crazy things about food culture in guidebooks (or even heard about it second- or third-hand). Some information may have you asking, “They do WHAT at the table!?”
Who wouldn’t be afraid of something going wrong?
But it’s a challenge you’ve got to take head-on if you want to succeed at business in the Arab world.
And if you do it right, you’ll not only get to enjoy delicious Middle Eastern cuisine—you’ll also build strong relationships that will last your whole life.
1. The Importance of Dining
In Arab culture, a personal relationship is crucial to doing good business.
It’s more than that, actually—a personal relationship is the foundation for success both financially and socially.
If you know someone who knows someone, you can get your task done. If you don’t, then you are at a stunning disadvantage compared to those who are friends with others in high places.
For a foreign businessperson, this is an additional challenge. You’re probably going to be arriving in the country with very few connections outside of your company.
But don’t give up yet. The Middle Eastern love of socializing and personal connections means that you can ease your way into this world through everyone’s common language: food.
Inviting others out to coffee or on a business lunch is a key first step in building connections with coworkers or clients.
Getting yourself invited to the same is even better—it means that you have a chance to blow your host’s expectations out of the water.
And because this personal relationship (and any negotiations that follow) will take a long time to build, expect to have several meetings over lunch or dinner with the same client.
Don’t be hasty. You’re forming a valuable—and delicious—connection!
Remember, dining etiquette isn’t one big test.
It’s a series of smaller challenges that all add up; things such as how to hold your fork and how to accept food that someone offers you. If you can handle these with grace, your hosts will subconsciously begin to treat you like a local.
And so the pressure isn’t always one-hundred percent, all the time. As a foreign expat, you’ll always be given a little bit of leeway. Besides, your hosts want to impress you and make you feel at home as well.
So let’s get down to it. What are these business lunches going to look like?
2. Typical Cuisines Around the Arabic Gulf
Before you head off to the Gulf countries, you should have a general idea of the type of food to expect.
In general, Arab cuisine is heavily influenced by Persian and Indian cuisine. If you’re familiar with Indian foods such as naan and biryani, the heavily spiced rice-based dishes won’t be too foreign to you.
Hearing this, you may expect rich, flavorful, and even spicy sauces to accompany shredded lamb or chicken. Those do exist, but speaking broadly, Gulf cuisine tends to avoid thick sauces in favor of dry seasonings.
Anybody familiar with Greek or Turkish cuisine won’t have to look far to recognize the familiar pita bread and hummus, or even the shawarma or kebab.
But unlike Greek cuisine, there won’t be quite as much cheese or oil to accompany your vegetable salads. Don’t worry, though—the hummus is amazing.
Arabs take their lunches seriously! It’s not uncommon for restaurants to be busiest from noon to three o’clock in the afternoon as locals and expats alike go out to eat their fill.
A typical lunch in Saudi Arabia, for instance, takes the form of a light tomato soup, grilled chicken and rice, and a salad. It’s accompanied by a choice of sodas, or if the restaurant has it, fresh juices.
You might be surprised that portions are enough for two or three people in some places. This is because food is often served family-style instead of portion-by-portion.
To give another example, in Abu Dhabi you’ll find fish or chicken cooked in a clay oven, adorned with coriander, bay leaves, and cinnamon.
And no snack assortment would be complete without fresh dates, nuts, and thick unsweetened yogurt. If you’ve only ever had old, dried-out dates before, you’re in for a treat!
Of course, there are plenty of fusion cuisines, Western restaurants, and fast-food joints to satisfy cravings from around the world.
Indian food in particular is growing faster and faster in popularity as more and more Indian expats begin to call the Arabian Gulf their new home.
No matter where your business lunch takes you, we still need to dive into the question of etiquette. How should you behave?
3. Table Manners
In this section, I’ll mention a couple of things to keep in mind that are purely related to table manners.
In other words, this is about avoiding what might come off as rude behavior while you’re actually sitting down and eating. Later on, we’ll look at some of the cultural aspects of business meals in the Arab world.
Now, depending on what you’re eating, the first big shock might be that you’re expected to eat with your hands.
Foreigners sometimes associate eating with your hands with pizza or other party foods.
In the Middle East, though, the formality range is a little bit wider. It’s not too rare to see people leaving the knife and fork on the table, particularly if there’s a lot of bread and sauce involved.
When you do end up using the utensils, take a look at what everyone else is doing and follow their lead. Some restaurants follow the Continental standard (fork in the left hand) and some follow the American tradition (fork in dominant hand, left or right).
The reason the American standard is adopted is because of the Muslim tradition of avoiding the left hand. Generally, in Muslim and Arab cultures, the left hand is associated with bathing and cleaning after using the bathroom.
Whether or not that’s true for you, it’s part of the cultural context and often people can’t help but make that association. That means you should always avoid offering food to someone with your left hand, and that’s why you may end up putting your fork in your right hand at dinnertime.
Unlike in some places around the world, Arab culture tends to follow European and American norms about actually eating the food.
Stick to the basics: don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t gorge yourself, and don’t make too much noise as you eat.
Soups are a big part of Arab cuisine, and when you’re enjoying your soup you should sip from the side of the spoon instead of slurping from the middle. Also, try not to scrape your spoon or fork against the side of your dish.
When you sit down, fold your napkin and keep it on your lap—don’t crumple it up on the table or tuck it into your collar.
Sit up straight and don’t jiggle your legs at the table. But at the same time, relax a little bit and don’t be too stuffy.
Just like your left hand, the soles of your feet are considered unclean or even offensive by some more-conservative people. If you’re the type to stretch out and relax or cross your legs at the table, make sure the soles of your shoes aren’t pointed toward anyone else.
Some of these meals can last quite a long time, but avoid resting your elbows on the table.
And, even though you might see people getting away with it in an office meeting, don’t check your phone or answer any calls during lunch. In fact, keep that phone off the table the whole time. The table should be for food and food alone.
If you must cough or sneeze, turn away from the table and use your elbow. And if there’s some food you can’t quite swallow, try to discreetly remove it with your napkin. Better yet, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom.
4. Business Lunch Manners
Before you head out the door to your meeting, take another look in the mirror.
You want to be dressed as best you can.
In the Arab world, there are high standards for formal dress when out and about—which means that you should really make a habit of looking well-groomed at all times.
Women should wear formal business wear that doesn’t expose much shoulder or neckline. If invited to a formal dinner party, ask around to see what the dress code of the venue is, and keep in mind the more conservative mindset of the local culture.
Men should also aim for the formal wear standard—you should end up with quite the collection of jackets and ties.
If the mere thought of putting on stockings or a sport coat in the fiery desert sun makes you start to sweat, don’t worry.
It’s surprisingly easy to find formal clothing designed for a hot and dry climate. It’ll be made of lighter materials, and the cut won’t constrict your movement. Look around for what’s known as “hot-weather formal wear” and find clothing made of silks, linens, and cottons.
And don’t forget: air conditioning is ubiquitous! You’ll be able to find several escapes from the heat just by attending that next meal!
The question of whether to arrive on time or fashionably late is a major sticking point in worldwide dining etiquette.
In the Middle East, just as in other regions, it tends to vary by personal preference. The fact that you’re an expat raises further considerations. Often, locals will want to accommodate you just as much as you want to accommodate them.
All this to say that you should be prepared to make some small errors in this aspect eventually. Aim to be on time, but don’t be surprised if you end up waiting a while. If you get used to arriving late, you might make the wrong impression on someone who prefers to be more punctual. Err on the side of caution!
When the others arrive, you’re going to want to make some introductions if everybody isn’t already well-acquainted.
It’s extremely important to pay attention to and respect others’ social status here. You should always try and remember people’s names and faces, but it’s even more important when you arrive in the Middle East.
It’s seen as very offensive if you forget someone’s name or call them by the wrong title.
One way to remember is to try and fix the first letter or syllable in your mind. This is easier to remember than the full Arabic name, and the extra effort involved in breaking it into parts will help you recall the full name later on.
If you do happen to forget a name—we’re all human, after all—you can ask one of your colleagues or coworkers later. Or just check the business card. Business cards and their exchange are treated with great honor in Arab countries.
Your own should be printed in English on one side and Arabic on the back, and even if you don’t understand the Arabic language you should present the Arabic side first for others to see.
After everyone’s gotten to know each other, it’s time to order and eat.
5. Digging In
This is another aspect of dining where you’re going to have to be prepared for multiple situations and be ready to adapt seamlessly.
Some hosts will prefer to order for everyone at the table, and others will leave everyone up to their own devices. At a lunch meeting, it’s more likely that you’ll just order for yourself or even take advantage of the set business lunch special.
Try not to order anything messy or complicated like spaghetti. Nobody wants to watch someone chasing pasta around his plate while trying to close a business deal.
If you’re already used to ordering for others, then you’ve probably already gotten comfortable with the norms of business meals in Arab culture.
That means you’ll know to avoid ordering alcohol, as Muslims avoid it on religious grounds. You’ll also wait for the most honored guest to begin eating before you do. In the event that you happen to be the most honored guest, show your respect for those who invited you by thanking them all for coming.
Now, the art of discussing business over a meal is something everyone has to perfect on his or her own.
One key thing to note is that sometimes, the mealtime is set aside for the meal itself, and the discussion will take place afterward.
In contrast, some people prefer to complete the discussion as soon as possible. It’s actually considered rude to linger too long after a meal if you’re having dinner in someone’s home.
Fortunately, this is another case where you can quickly adjust your behavior based on the environment. If everyone else is fully engrossed in their meal, you should take that as a sign that discussion is going to happen later.
If you’ve been taken out to lunch, always try to listen and be respectful while others are talking. Add what you can to show that you’re interested, but keep your own points brief.
It’s a sign of respect to put others’ time and attention over yours, especially if they’re of higher social status.
If you both have specific goals you want to achieve during the meeting, then you can expect to spend about an hour to an hour-and-a-half discussing them.
You might come from a culture where efficiency is key, but remember that in the Arab world personal relationships are far more important than whether someone signed the dotted line today or tomorrow.
Be fully prepared to have a lively discussion, an excellent meal, and a friendly parting handshake—only to make little headway on your agenda. It’s just the way the world works.
When the bill comes, never assume that you’re going to be treated.
This is another case when the cosmopolitan nature of the Gulf countries makes things pretty confusing.
In general, the one who proposed the meeting and chose the venue is the one who’s expected to pay, but all kinds of factors can change that expectation.
Suppose you met over coffee, for instance. Or the venue was arranged by a third party.
The safest thing to do is to always offer to pay. If you’re turned down, it’s considered very polite to continue to insist, but after a little back-and-forth you can drop it and accept the treat.
Whether you closed a big deal or not, it’s good manners to send a quick follow-up message afterward. If you did make important progress, send over a small gift from your company.
This tiny act goes a long, long way toward building those invaluable personal connections.
It shows that you truly care about the person you met with, and that you want to let them know you’re thinking about what they said even after parting ways.
And no matter what part of the world you’re living in, that’s going to impress people.
These cultural do’s and dont’s about business lunch culture really aren’t too hard to follow. In most cases, they simply stem from treating others with the sincere respect that they deserve.
As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll be successful no matter what.