Inter-cultural awareness as a key to success in the Middle East

Culture influences every human’s behavior. Culture is learned by means of symbols, values and norms, aiming to achieve socialization. But what are the origins of these norms and values and how are they transferred if you look at the Middle East?

As Huntington explained: The central elements of any culture or civilization are language and religion. Yet , in the Middle East the cultural dimension on int. trade seems to play an even larger role than in the western hemisphere. Understanding the language and belief system is hence a critical success factor for doing business in the Middle East.

While both language and religion influence each other heavily they are neither identical nor is their reach the same. The mixed and often wrong usage of the terms Islamic world and Arab(ic) world causes irritation and sometimes misunderstanding.

Arabic is the common language of the Arab world and the most important Semitic language. It is the native language of more than 300 million people living in 22 different Middle Eastern and African countries.

The Arabic language originated in Saudi Arabia in pre-Islamic times

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The status of Arabic as the language of Islam cannot be emphasized strongly enough. The Quran represents God’s revealed word and as such it is regarded as the most eloquent and clear text there is in the whole Arabic language.

The interplay between language and religion works in both directions. While Islam has strengthened the Arabic language, Arabic in turn reinforces Islamic ideas and principles as it has incorporated numerous religious terms into daily life. This issue can be illustrated by the perhaps most common expression used in Arab countries: ‘Inshallah’, which can be translated as god willing. Inshallah reflects the belief that god guides each and every activity, and that proceeding is impossible against Allah’s divine will.

Even today, when over 80% of the world’s Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language, passive understanding is common due to recitation of the Quran in daily prayers and familiarity with other religious literature. Since understanding Arabic is so important, most Muslims try to learn at least the basics.

So, while Arabic is the language of Islam, the Islamic world spreads far beyond the countries which have Arabic as their official language.

There are more than 1.8 billion adherents to Islam today. While Islam originated in present-day Saudi Arabia, the Islamic faith spread to constitute a majority in more than 35 countries stretching from north-western Africa, through the Middle East to the southern Philippines.

Unlike Judaism and Christianity however, Islam must be regarded not only as a religion but moreover as a complete way of life. As such it covers broad aspects of daily life – spiritual and secular. This also explains why understanding the religious norms and its wide influence on the belief system is critical in business life.

So, let us summarize the lessons learnt:

  1. The Arab world consists of 22 different countries in the MEA region and has a population of approx. 300 million people.
  2. The Islamic / Muslim World consists of 35 countries across the MEA, the Indian sub-continent and central Asia and has a population of 1.8 billion people.
  3. Both Arabic language and Islam influence each other. Yet, not all Arabs are Muslims and most Muslims do not have Arabic as a native language.
  4. The influence of culture in the Middle East is high as Islam is affecting broad aspects of life incl. business.
  5. Understanding cultural norms and values is a critical success factor for business in the Middle East.

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