Updated in November 2016
I lived in Dubai for 5 years with a break living in South Africa of about 18 months in the middle 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. And, above all, Saudi Arabia did not issue visas for women at that point. Full stop. However, I will admit that I found it quite intriguing and my untameable 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 more to be 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.
1. 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 hands upon meeting someone and would be rejected. Once, the man in front of me, 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. The first time someone said that to me I found it incredibly demeaning and insulting, especially in a business, corporate environment.
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 because they are not sure what you prefer, they will not offer it either, even if they would otherwise not have a problem shaking hands with women, but better safe than sorry!
2. Dress conservatively but you (almost never) have to cover
At the tender age of 25 or 26, 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 heard for my words and insights rather than for 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 usually wore pant suits and shirts.
I most vividly remember a meeting when I was sitting across the table from a senior member of the client, a C-Level executive of a multi-billion dollar company, and the man had his eyes fixated on my cleavage. Since then, I favoured shirts which were not fitted, wore my suit jacket whenever possible and tried to wear darker colours which did not stand out so much. It is the fact that you are not covered in a place where most women are head to toe in black, that naturally attracts attention. And I always thought it was best to avoid that not to send the wrong message, especially in the workplace.
3. Make the most of being a woman
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 was not just that, at passport control, immigration, visa queues, buses and other public places I was always given preference and was able to skip the queue or there would be a specific one for women which again, was much less crowded.
At Kuwait airport, the female queue for visa on arrival was always far shorter than for my male colleagues. In Syria, the bus driver gave me the best seat at the front next to him when he realised 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 was long and there wasn’t a designated women line, skipping the queue was expected and encouraged. I came to understand that everyone felt more comfortable when I was not queueing around them.
4. Sit back and enjoy the unusual
Because you may be the only woman 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 know what to do with you. I was once in Sudan invited to iftar (the meal taken when the sun sets used to break the day’s fast) 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.
So there I was, on a mat on the floor, in my suit, in the 40 degree dry heat akin to opening the oven’s door, in the patio, with the chicken and the children running around, eating with my hands and with a mild monkey in a zoo complex.
They pampered me with unlimited food and, as they did not speak much English, I wasn’t unsure how I was supposed to behave so 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 the mother had cooked. 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.
If you’d like to read more about the Middle East, check these posts…