07 April 2014

Gulf countries - learnings from working in the Middle East

Dubai's famous Burj Al Arab

I lived in Dubai for 5 years with a break living in South Africa of about 18 months and although for most of that time I was actually working on projects in Africa, I did start off with quite a bit of travelling in the Middle East. This involved primarily the countries in the Persian Gulf, the ones that are part of the GCC Council: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and also Lebanon, Jordan and Sudan. I also dealt with clients from Iraq and Afghanistan remotely or in meetings in Dubai/Kuwait.

I never had the chance to travel to Saudi Arabia, partly because it was company policy - it would have made matters hard for a woman to wear an Abaya, cover her head, deal with men who may have a different opinion on female business women, etc. not to mention the fact that most clients were 100% men and offices may not even have female toilets - and partly because, let's be frank here, I despise what the country stands for and I am quite a principled person so I did not want to have anything to do with Saudis or contribute to the country's wealth in any way. 

However, I will admit that I found it quite intriguing and my untamable curiosity would have probably forced me to try it at least once if I was given the opportunity.

Working in the rest of the Arab world was generally ok with a few hiccups and other funny stories to bring back home.

I dealt with 100% men on the client side but I was back then quite a junior consultant so I was not expected to lead conversations or to present but be more on the back seat taking notes and arranging admin stuff or making slides, research etc. which was less client-facing.

Nonetheless, I attended a fair amount of meetings, participated in discussions and was always invited to presentations so I could take away a fair amount of learnings. I am going to share some of the funny yet also useful learnings for those who may have to work there or for those who are interested in inter-cultural experiences.

Wait to be offered a hand shake 

This is most basic of rules when you are in an Arab/Muslim country as a woman and have to deal with men: always wait for them to offer their hand first to avoid disappointment. It did happen to me in a number of occasions that I would offer to shake my hand upon meeting someone and would be rejected. Once, the man, clearly shocked and confused ended up meeting my hand with his elbow! I was quite rebellious back then so wanted to show them my upfront open approach by always offering my hand but it never stopped those who refuse to touch women from simply avoiding it or telling me that they don't shake hands with women. 

So as a sign of respect or simply to avoid starting off on the wrong foot, wait for the man to make the first movement. Chances are that becuase they are not sure what you prefer they may not offer it either even if they would otherwise not have a problem shaking hands with women but better safe than sorry!

Dress conservatively 

Fully covered up in Damascus mosque
As I said, I was quite rebellious but I quickly learnt that, both because of general professionalism (I wouldn't wear open shirts or very tight skirts/trousers elsewhere either) and because I wanted to be heart for my words and arguments rather than my appearance it was better to dress conservatively. This did not, by any means, imply covering my hair, looking purposely ugly or wearing ill-fitting loose clothes but rather avoiding those which would attract unnecessary attention. I most vividly remember a meeting when I was sitting  accross the table from a senior member of the client and the man had his eyes fixated on my shirt. Since then, I favoured shirts which were not fitted, wore my suit jacket whenever suitable and tried to wear darker colours which do not stand out so much. One note of remark, it is not that they are rude but that generally speaking, in most Arab countries, Western women and/or women without abayas are rare therefore you are sure to grab people's curiosity


Make the most of being a woman

Toilet sign - Jordan's Wadi Rum camp
Although generally speaking these are pretty macho and sexist countries being a woman had its perks. In public places or at the client site there were always fewer women so toilets were rarely used. And it is not just that, at passport control, immigration, visa queues, buses and other public places/services you were usually able to skip the queue or there would be a specific one for women which again, is much less crowded. 

At Kuwait airport the female queue for visas was always shorter. In Syria, the bus driver gave me the best seat at the front next to him when he reallied that the entire bus was staring at me. In Bahrain I had the office bathroom almost entirely to myself. And the best part, even if the queue is long and there isn't a designated women line skip the queue, everyone, from the official manning the queue to the men on it, will find it completely normal and may even proactively suggest it. This favouritism also extends to asking for help to anyone to carry bags or do other arduous tasks. I always thought that, if we are considered at a disadvantage in many aspects, I may as well exploit the system to my advantage whenever possible. Selfish I know but after being negatively discriminated so often you learn to make the most of it. Also, everyone feels more comfortable when you are not queueing for a long time around them.

Sit back and enjoy being unusual

Because you may be the only women in several business and social gatherings you will also have the chance to have a laugh, from time to time, at the situations where your host, client or otherwise may not really what to do with you. I was once in Sudan invited to iftar at a client's house. When we arrived, being the only woman on the team, the client momentarily hesitated what to do with me and eventually sent me to the kitchen where the rest of the women and children of the house were while he took all of my male colleagues to the living room to join the rest of the men, the TV, the table and chairs and the comfortable sofas.

The hosting family - Sudan
So there I was, on a mat on the floor, in my suit, in the patio, open air, with the chicken and the children running around, eating with my hands and being the most interesting sight the women in the family had seen in a long time. 

They pampered me with unlimited food and, as they did not speak any English and I wasn't unsure how I was supposed to behave I ate everything they put on my plate until I literally could eat no more. Every time I would finish my food they would put more on the communal plate that was in front of me. They had already eaten I presumed as we were slightly late and arrived just after the breaking of the fast so I ate on my own the piles of food that usually are offered during Iftar. I tried conversing with the teenage daughters to no avail but managed to at least make them smile and laugh a few times with my way of eating. I had to truly put into practise all the learnings and customs I had read about in my time in the Middle East - not to eat with your left hand, break the fast with some dates and water first and so on to make sure I did not offend anyone.

Have you worked in the Middle East? Did you experience anything similar?

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