I regularly receive calls from individuals who have been presented with an opportunity to work in the Middle East and feel quite daunted by the prospect. The Middle East is a part of the world that has been the focus of media frenzy. There are many political and historical reasons for this focus. However, there is a considerable amount of information out there that is misleading.
It would be irresponsible to advise you to ignore the media but do get advice from people with hands on and current experience in the region. Always make sure to visit the relevant embassy web site for the country you are visiting, generally these are listed FCO web site: www.fco.gov.uk where you will also find information about visa entry and medical requirements
This series of blogs aim to provide you with information, knowledge, tips and links. I aim to help to clarify some of the generalisations and myths and make sense of customs to enable you to make an informed choice about whether to accept an assignment in the region.
In my attempts to describe values and cultural influences I have tried to avoid generalisations that lead to stereotyping. I hope I have achieved that balance by providing a focus on the strong collectivist culture rather than individual behaviours.
There are approx 23 Arab countries combined population of some 325 million people spanning two continents and what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The media often generalise when writing about the region and its culture, such generalisations should be treated with caution, while they provide an insight the accuracy and value of this information will vary dramatically among countries and within countries.
There is no “one” Arab culture or society. Arabic people are diverse but share a common history, language, and traditions. Although predominantly Muslim, many Arabs are Christian or Jewish. There are very large Christian communities in Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, so, it is important to note that the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are not interchangeable—most Muslims are not Arab, and many Arabs are not Muslim.
Only in Hollywood
Before my first visit to the region I had in my mind a set of stereotypical representations of an Arab! This image was of a Bedouin and obviously heavily influenced by how the media portrays Arabs. Sorry to disappoint but Arabs do not look like Bedouins, or Belly Dancers. The Bedouin image is about as typical of Arabs as a man wearing a bowler hat and reading the Times newspaper is of a typical English male. Arabs differ; many have blond hair, fair skin, and blue or green eyes. Others have African features it’s not uncommon to see fair-skinned Arabs in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking because people appear western they will have western values. Many Arabs have been educated in the west and can demonstrate a strong connection with our culture. The majority will respect a strong Islamic belief system. To underestimate the influence of Islam on society would be a mistake. Islam is much more than a religion and permeates family, values, business practices where emphasis is placed on ethics, respect for seniority both in rank and age and the concept of saving face through the use of compromise to solve conflict.
In the west we encourage an individualistic culture taking pride in individual accomplishments and what makes us unique, special, or different from others. Conversely the culture of most Middle Eastern countries is oriented more toward collectivism than individualism. A strong belief in a collectivist culture is that personal value comes not from individual deeds, but from social standing and group affiliation. A person is fundamentally defined by, and valued for, belonging or “Wasta” (your influence or connections) this means that the group holds great power over the individual’s behaviour. The consequence is that individuals develop hidden agendas to ensure connectivity to others and enhance their value.
The concept of collectivism can often change the expected outcome of an activity. You may notice a less competitive approach and an increased need to collaborate as information and data is processed around the context of relationships and collective value