Fundamental Leadership Differences for Westerners in the Middle East

Leadership 13 Feb 2019
Fundamental Leadership Differences for Westerners in the Middle East

Wherever you go in the world, countries and cultures do things differently that make them unique in their own way. Whether it be food, customs, or side of the road in which you drive, these distinct nuances are what make the country inimitable and adhering to these differences is essential when visiting.

It is similar in business and is foolhardy to pretend that the differences in cultures do not transpire into the office. Office etiquette, work hours and leadership styles are adaptions expats can struggle to make when moving to the Middle East.

Leading in a Middle Eastern environment can be a lot different to the western culture you are most likely familiar with. Here are the fundamental differences you must know before leading in the Middle East.


Multicultural organisations

Hierarchy of Priorities

A prominent difference that is found when working with Middle Eastern nationals is the priority setting of the Middle Eastern business professional. With westerners familiar with the term ‘separation between church and state’ the difference between the two is less distinct in the Middle East.

Typically the hierarchy of priorities for a western businessman would be business, family, religion, whereas in the Middle East this model is reversed with religion being the top priority, then family, then business coming last.

This can present some interesting and unfamiliar circumstances in the boardroom, with meetings to be scheduled during certain times of the day so as to not interfere with prayer times to avoid any interruptions to the meeting. It is also not uncommon for Middle Eastern nationals to leave a meeting momentarily for family purposes.


A significant factor dictating the way a western executive must consider when leading an organisation is the influence of ‘wasta.’

With no direct translation in English, it is loosely translated into nepotism, ‘clout’ or ‘who you know.’ Although it is likened to the western saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” in terms of context it holds true, but ‘wasta’ holds a lot more significance than in the west. So much so that many expats struggle to understand it. For many, it borders along the lines of corruption, but it is simply how business is done.

Be prepared for long-winded business meetings without any outcome or ‘business talk.’

MultinationalFamily Run Businesses

Approximately 90% of all companies in the Middle East are family-owned businesses, with some of the oldest family businesses in the world. The effect these companies have on the economy is significant and is particularly influential in the regions largest exporting good, oil.

This is potentially the reason why ‘wasta’ is so prominent in the Middle East, as it is the business relationship between people – or in this case, family relationships – that are the foundations for a business transaction.

As an expat executive, you must educate yourself on the customs of appropriate business transactions including this notion of ‘wasta.’

Leadership Through Consultation

One last factor that western executive face when in leadership positions is the type of leadership styles most commonly found in the Middle East. Most CEOs from western cultures would be familiar with an autocratic style of leadership, responsible for all decision making processes themselves. They feel comfortable in making the decision and responsible for the consequences, both positive and negative.

In the Middle East they manage their decisions on a consultation basis. If any decision is th be made they will not make a decision until all appropriate parties have been consulted. You are expected to follow this procedure as well, a process that can be painstakingly long, particularly if you are not used to it.

It is the reversal of priorities that lead to the demise of expat leadership in the Middle East. Your patience will most likely be tested. However, the quicker one can understand and adapt to the differences of the Middle Eastern market the greater the results you will likely see.

Improve your leadership capabilities through one-on-one coaching. Career Intelligence has a number of options for you.

Discover The Right Option For You!

← Interim Management in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar & Oman 5 Cultural Differences Western Executives Fail to Adapt to in the Boardroom →

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.

Comments are closed