5 Cultural Differences Western Executives Fail to Adapt to in the Boardroom

5 Cultural Differences Western Executives Fail to Adapt to in the Boardroom

Many Western Executives describe working in the Middle East as a frustrating and impatient experience. The cultural differences are vastly different from the norms of their home nation.

Last week, we discussed the Fundamental Leadership Differences For Westerners In The Middle East. In this post, we go into more depth regarding some of those frustrations that westerners misunderstand in the boardroom and the significance they have for nationals.


  1. Greetings

Greeting someone when they arrive is a customary action across both cultures.

However, the typical Islamic greeting you would likely hear when arriving in a meeting would be ‘asalamu alaykum’ (peace be with you) with a typical response being ‘wa alakyum salam’ (and peace be with you).

Although as a westerner you may not be expected to greet a national in this manner, it is useful to know. Despite it not being required, learning a few words and knowing what to reply in certain situations can be a beneficial factor when looking to build personal relationships in this region.

Additionally, like in the west, handshakes are a common salutation, however handshakes can be held for a longer period of time in the Middle East. Proper etiquette would suggest for one to wait before they retract their hand first.

  1. Middle Eastern ExecutiveMeeting Style

Meetings are conducted in a vastly different manner in the Middle East. Where in the west, efficiency is a top priority, Middle Eastern meetings can often follow no structure at all, seeming more like a discussion than a meeting.

Due to the strong prioritisation of relationships in the gulf, this discussion style of meeting facilitates the building of these relationships. Decisions are agreed upon by consultation and topics are brought up sometimes on the fly.

A common western downfall is trying to enforce your own bureaucratic style on the meeting. Middle Eastern nationals will not be fond of this and lead to an unfavourable response and feedback on decisions made and actions taken.

  1. Religion e.g. ‘Inshallah’

In many ways, religion alters the course of business in the Middle East. Apart from obvious examples such as Ramadan and the Salat, there are more contextual differences that are more important and difficult for westerners to understand.

The “discussion” style agenda in meetings can test a westerners’ patience. However, in order to be successful, patience may be a westerner’s most valuable asset in the Middle East.

One of the main reasons why links to the word ‘Inshallah’ (Insha’Allah) – an Arabic word that translates to ‘God willing.’

Frequently said in meetings and in the workplace, it is usually referenced when something is agreed upon such as a time to meet or business decision.

Despite it being merely one instance where religion plays a role, it is particularly important as it is an example of the authority religion plays in business. The significance of all actions agreed upon ‘Inshallah’ demonstrates how a business decision can hinge upon religion in the Middle East – a concept completely the opposite to business practices in the West.

It may test a westerners patience as decisions that may be agreed upon ‘if God wills’ can mean things may happen after the time you had  happen when they arewere meant to happen on a certain date may happen a few days after – or in some instances before. The essence of time becomes less important in these scenarios and it is vital not to lose ones patience as an executive.

Western CEO

  1. Spoken Word

In the Middle East, ones spoken word holds a lot more weight. A signature is sometimes not required and giving someone your word may be all you need.

Contracts are often seen as an understanding of the agreement as opposed to a binding document from both parties.

Due to this, be careful of the promises you make. Ensure any promises you make you can deliver as the failure to do so can result in a loss of honour.

  1. Wasta

Arguably the most important factor that influences a business meeting for a westerner is the term ‘wasta’ and may be the most irritating factor for westerner’s with little experience in the Middle Eastern environment.

Although similar to the saying “its not what you know, but who you know” wasta’s significance is a lot more prestigious in the Middle East.

Someone with wasta can have things done more quickly or rules bent to ensure the deal is made – a notion difficult to grasp as a westerner. They are trusted confidants to those asking advice of them.

This is the main reason why business relationships are so vital in this region. If favours are asked of you, oblige and despite the favour not being returned immediately, favours are often not forgotten in the Middle East.

With the significance of religion and personal relationships in the boardroom, the success of a western expat can be determined by their ability to successfully adapt and understand the values of the culture.

Focus on understanding the customs and building relationships for a successful transition in a Middle Eastern Boardroom.


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About the author

Michael O'Keeffe

A graduate from Fairfield University in New Media with a particular focus on Television, Michael has worked in social media since graduation. His expertise will offer a variety insights into how you can penetrate into the saturated executive job market.

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