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Doing Business

Cultural Differences and Taboos:

The Arab way of doing business is little understood by the West. Misconceptions and preconceptions are rampant, the most common being that foreigners like to lump the manner of making deals with Arab states in the same basket. One must not forget that each country has its own local culture, customs, and traditions.

Below are some helpful tips and a few examples of the cultural misunderstandings that can easily occur when doing business in Syria.

Negotiating a deal with Syrians can take a very long time, as the notion of time and punctuality holds little meaning. You will hear many Syrians use the following phrases: In Shallah and Bokra respectively mean "God willing" and "Tomorrow.” A friend once asked for a service to be done, and the reply was "In Shallah, Bokra.” On the other hand, in the West, “time is money.”

Speech is indirect. Foreigners living in Syria for a long time call it “talking in circles.” During and before negotiations, expect to be asked many questions about your personal life, family, and background. Syrians are warm, hospitable people and like to get to know you before committing to a deal.

Deals are made primarily through food or drink. Business lunches and discussing ideas over numerous cups of tea or Arabic coffee are commonplace. To Anglo-Saxons, language is a primary source. They are direct, concise, and to the point. Little time is spent talking in circles.

Syrians exhibit a high level of nonverbal communication when dealing with people. Westerners should not be afraid of seeing them use their hands a lot when talking.

Great emphasis is placed on societal traditions and customs. Men are not used to negotiating with or being given orders by a woman. Society is patriarchal and female entrepreneurs are rare. Arab men like to be seen as the breadwinner in the family.

Society is close-knit and small, so be careful what you say about someone, as you may be talking to his or her cousin. The concept of six degrees of separation very much applies here.

Another important cultural taboo to be aware of is the significance of the siesta time. One does not call between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 pm, unless it is an emergency, whether it is winter or summer.

Equally substantial is the fact that the Arabic language is hierarchical in structure. Much emphasis is placed on titles and seniority. Constant judgment of what one does in life and what title one holds affects almost all aspects of Syrian life.

Below are some important highlights of Syrian culture:

  • Strong sense of family loyalty, duty, and obligation.
  • Strong sense of culture.
  • Siesta is regarded as sacred.
  • Pride in country's long history, but not in its progress over the last 50 years.
  • Individual orientation over group orientation.
  • Little respect for the notions of time or punctuality.