Cultural Intelligence

Companies entering into an unfamiliar market need cultural intelligence to help sell products and services in order to avoid making the cultural mistakes that could ruin a good business venture.  Doing business abroad is not the same as doing business in your home market whether it be the UK or Europe.  You may only have one chance to pitch – and getting it right will make or break a deal. We have highlighted the Gulf Cooperation Council members for this first article but much of what is said here is universal.

An important part of any business strategy is to understand the culture into which you want to do business. Market entry research should always include an element of cultural intelligence and the English Business Council has a wealth of knowledge by sector, industry and most importantly local sensibilities. We have an in-depth knowledge of the Gulf region and unrivalled knowledge of the way business operates in the UAE and wider GCC. 

Let me give two examples of how important an awareness of local culture is. When I was working in Saudi Arabia a famous brand of tomato sauce was sent to the Kingdom with a recipe for pork bacon and egg tart on the reverse label. All 500,000 bottles were dumped at sea without any compensation and the company avoided a fine due to its trading history. 

Ot take the case of an American businessman who was granted an audience with an important local trader. After the first introduction, he refused the tea offered and went into a full sales presentation. They listened, thanked him and that was the last he heard.

The founding six members of the GCC was set up to facilitate trade and all have different business cultures and conduct business in different ways. Islam plays an important part in business but more so in KSA than, say, Dubai. There are however some similarities within all the GCC states which are based on different factors. It is considered bad form to discuss business at your first meeting. The first meeting is generally reserved for pleasantries, getting to know each other, talking in general terms and making introductions to all the stakeholders. You may not meet the ultimate decision maker until several meetings later, but if you survive the first few rounds you will almost certainly have a new client prepared for a long-term relationship.

There is a certain amount of meeting etiquette which should be observed, and, in most cases, it is one-sided. Never be late for a meeting but always be prepared to be kept waiting. Try not to sit in the biggest chair in the room and never sit directly under the picture of the rulers hanging on the wall. Not everyone shakes hands – especially women. If a hand is proffered shake it; if not, a simple motion putting your flat right hand on the left chest will suffice. When understanding direct selling techniques, the phrase “people do business with people they like” comes up often in discussions. It is never truer than when dealing in the Middle East.

On many occasions the EBC has hosted business owners to visit the UAE, giving them a tour and presentation on the importance of cultural intelligence. Without cultural understanding of the local customs and traditions – and a knowledge of the local sensibilities – you may well be doomed from the start of any new business venture

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