The Business Etiquette of the Arab World

Business Etiquette in the Arab World–from what to wear, to what to say and do, to what to avoid doing.

-Traditional Arab men wear a thobe (a long, white robe made of cotton or wool) with the headdress, which consists of the tagia (a small, white cap); a gutra/guthra (a large square of cloth, usually made of cotton); and the igal/agal (a doubled black cord, originally made of camel leather).  The tagia prevents the gutra from slipping off the head, and the igal holds the gutra in place. The thobe may be worn for all social and business occasions. And it is sometimes complemented on formal occasions with a “bisht,” a cloak of exquisite fabric which is typically embroidered along its edges with gold or silver threads.

A Western man should wear a suit and a tie. Even in extremely hot weather, shorts and short-sleeve shirts are regarded as highly inappropriate.

Arab women cover their hair and wear the traditional black abaya in the public outdoors. In conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, foreign women are expected to dress likewise. And prominent makeup, especially lipstick, is discouraged. In less conservative countries, foreign businesswomen may wear conservative business suits. Jacket sleeves should be long; skirts should extend to below the knee (even when sitting); pants are allowed; and blouses should have high necklines.  Dark business clothing is preferred. A foreign businesswoman should cover her hair.

-Arab culture, like most ancient cultures, is a genteel, dignified, formal culture, and greetings, departures, and forms of address are of paramount importance.  Men shake each other’s hand when greeting and parting. However, a gentleman should be guided by an Arab lady’s behavior during business and social encounters:  Many Arab women do not shake hands with males who are not family members or with non-Arab males. If an Arab lady extends a handshake to a gentleman, however, he should graciously accept it. (A Western businesswoman should be guided by the overall demeanor of an Arab male counterpart:  Some ultra-conservative Arab men will not touch a woman to whom he is not related by blood or marriage.  In general, business women shake hands with each other).

After shaking hands, gentlemen are expected to inquire as to each other’s health, the health of each other’s family (in general), and other matters; immediately engaging in matters of business after shaking hands is discouraged as it insinuates an impatient nature and a lack of genuine interest in other people.

When circumstances dictate that hands should not be shaken, the cultural alternative is for a gentleman to place his right hand over his heart, simultaneously bowing his head ever so slightly.

-The standard, all-encompassing Arab World greeting is “salam alaykum,” which means “peace be unto you.”  And the proper response for that greeting is “Wa alaykum as-salam,” which means, “And upon you be peace.”

Other standard greetings are:


Greeting                                  Meaning                               Response

-Ahlan wa sahlan                     Hello                                     Ahlan bik

-Sabah al-khayr                       Good morning/afternoon      Sabah an-nur

-Masa al-khayr                        Good evening                        Masa an-nur

-Tibash ala-khayr                    Good night                            Inta min ahlu


The general form of address for men is “Sayyed,” which means “Sir,” followed by the man’s full name. Women are addressed as “Sayeeda” or “Sayedity,” followed by the woman’s full name. A woman may also be addressed as “Madame,” followed by her full name.

A man’s full name typically comprises of his given name, followed by the name(s) of his father and/or grandfather, then his family name or the name of his tribe. So, for example, Nadir bin Hamad Jaber Al-Jaiek is Nadir, son or grandson of Hamad Jaber (of) Al-Jaiek, (Al-Jaiek being either the name of his tribe or the family’s surname).   A gentleman’s full name should be used in formal situations and on correspondence. Never, in a business context, should a man be addressed on a first-name basis (e.g., “Nadir”); and he should never be addressed in the affectionate or diminutive (e.g., “Nadi”).  Names should also never be abbreviated in formal or business correspondence: Mohammed, for example, should never be shortened to “Mohd.”  It is, however, permissible to delete the patronymic, such that the example provided above would be styled Sayyed Nadir Al-Jaiek. After the formal address/salutation, “Sayyed Al-Jaiek” would be appropriate.

The forms of address for rulers and members of the ruling and governmental classes vary from country to country. A gentleman should consult with the cultural attaché of the country prior to his arrival. A king, for example, may be addressed as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness,” depending on the country, while senior members of ruling families are typically addressed as “Your Excellency” followed by “Sheik” (pronounced “shake,” not “sheek”), then the person’s full name. When inquiring as to the proper forms of address, a gentleman should be sure to inquire as to the style to be used in official, written correspondence; the form of address upon being introduced face to face; the form address during ongoing conversation; and the form of referral when speaking about a particular person.

-The “weekend” in the traditional Arab World occurs Thursday/Friday. However, the tradition is slowly shifting to Friday/Saturday and even Saturday/Sunday.  A gentleman visiting and/or doing business in Arab countries should become acquainted with the local and regional traditions.



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