Working in the Middle East

The third in a series of articles that aim to provide information and advice in context to help consultants gain an appreciation of the region and greater understanding of its culture.

It is important to repeat the caveat contained in article one. The observations describe events as I have experienced them and cannot be generalised.

New Insights

It is difficult to find guidance on how to adopt an appropriate teaching style to be more culturally sensitive. This article provides specific tips and techniques on how to adapt your teaching style when working in an unfamiliar culture.

There is tremendous value in allocating additional time to get acquainted with your participants. Mutual sharing enables you to develop an understanding of their background, feelings and thoughts and enables you to adapt your content to meet their needs and it begins to create a climate where it is OK to share opinions.

The sweetest sound in the world is the persons own name

 Dale Carnegie

In Arabic culture a person’s ancestry, character, are reflected in their names. Arabic names are sometimes difficult for the unfamiliar because of their strong consonants and guttural intonations. Even if slightly mispronounced the meaning of a name is changed or it becomes all together meaningless.

In a press conference in 2007, President Bush, surprisingly pronounced Iraq and Iran correctly as A-rock and Ee-run, Bush also had trouble pronouncing the name of Saddam Hussein, putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable converted the meaning of the name in Arabic, from sa-DAM, which means one who confronts, to Sad-um, which means a barefoot beggar.

Taking time and having a method to help you master the pronunciation of names is essential. I often ask people to introduce themselves by explaining the meaning of their name. This enables me to capture and clarify the pronunciation. If in doubt about a pronunciation visit :

If you would like to know more about the meaning of names visit

Using Arabic

I often begin by greeting the participants in Arabic. It acknowledges their Native language and demonstrates respect.

Greetings include “good morning” Sabah al khair –  to which the reply is: Sabah al noor.

Masah al khair -good afternoon / evening to which the reply is: Masah al noor

Keefak – How are you? To which the reply is: Ana bikhayr, shukran – I am fine, thank you

Ismi Joy – My name is Joy

Shukran thank you to which the reply is: Aafwaan -you’re welcome

Another common phrase that participants will use and appreciate is “God willing or if god wishes” Insha’allah or “Thanks be to God” al hamdulillah.

Overcoming Language Barriers It is important to include assessment material that does not rely upon one method. Written work alone may present a test of a participant’s ability to communicate in English and may not enable a delegate to express how they understand the material. Use a variety of feedback techniques to assess understanding, provide handouts that have been modified with to ease reading and prevent overload, and allow additional time for people to copy information from whiteboards and flipcharts. Learning in a second language is mentally draining so slow down to enable people to process what you are saying.

Lost in Translation

Traditional Dress and cultural barriers Traditional dress can present certain obstacles. I was running a 4 week syllabus based training event in Jordan. The course had been designed against very specific criteria. The mixed ability group were a delight to work with, very supportive and sensitive to each others needs. The session on developing feedback skills was really interesting. All of the students were instructors and taught mixed sex groups. I asked them to pair up male and female partners. Two of the women wore veils that covered the face. Non verbal body language is almost impossible to read under these circumstances and eventually the planned activities were abandoned in favour of a discussion about non verbal feedback. The group were good humoured about the session which would probably not have been attempted by an Arabic trainer but they were unable to make any suggestions about how to read non verbal feedback in these circumstances.

I now carefully choose activities that focus on tone of voice and use of silence to communicate a range of emotions and use video and emotion cards for the non verbal content.

I had observed both women adopt a very soft speaking voice during the feedback sessions and questioned this approach. They explained that it was a sign of respect to be inconspicuous and humble particularly in the presence of a male and of course this has taught me to avoid pairing up males and females when traditional values are evident.

Appropriate Activities for Learning

When working in the Middle East before selecting activities for learning consider how that activity may work in a different cultural context. Unrelated males and females are separated at an early age and many of the female adults that you encounter will not have been allowed to leave the family home without an escort. Many will have attended single sex schools. Imagine their horror when faced with a team building activity that involves physical contact such as being guided through a maze while wearing a blindfold. Also consider the physical limitations of dress when considering activities that involve stepping up and over obstacles not particularly easy when dressed in a burqa!


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