February 01, 2016

Traveling in Muslim countries for business will be smoother with the understanding of a few key customs that are ubiquitous throughout the region.

Hospitality is a traditional value with deep roots in ancient history and religion. In Islam, it is the host’s duty to offer sustenance and promote a warm, personal rapport with you early on in the relationship. In turn, it is your duty as the visitor to accept the host’s offer graciously. By sharing food, drink and light conversation at the onset of a business meeting, you demonstrate trust in your host and set the stage for productive peer-to-peer interaction demonstrating proper business etiquette. It might be appropriate for you to bring a small gift, although never alcohol or products made of pigskin, both of which are prohibited in Islam.

Traveling in Muslim countries and business etiquette starts with awareness of everyday, physical gestures that many of us are accustomed to but may be offensive in some Muslim countries. For instance:

  • As a best practice, a woman should not look directly in the eye of or initiate a handshake with a male colleague at their first meeting; this may be considered provocative.
  • A safe greeting in the Muslim world is to bow slightly with your hand over your heart saying “Salaam,” meaning “peace.”
  • It is best never to show the soles of your shoes in the company of a Muslim business contact. It is considered disrespectful. In some cases, it might be appropriate to remove your shoes. Follow the lead of your host.
  • Remember to use only your right hand in public situations, such as eating, drinking or passing something to another person. The left hand is reserved for hygiene.
  • In some countries, the ‘thumbs-up” or “okay” signs may take on a different, unintended – and potentially embarrassing – meaning.

Rank and status are important in the Muslim world, particularly in a business setting for proper business etiquette in Islamic countries. If traveling in Muslim countries with colleagues, it is advisable to establish who will take on the role of "leader" for the group. Your hosts will be more comfortable knowing who is considered the senior member of your team, allowing them to interact in a rank-appropriate manner. Always wait to be seated by your hosts; the seating arrangements will depend on the status of the meeting’s participants. Conversations should steer away from politics and religion; do not use profanity or interrupt; and, remain patient. Meetings in Muslim countries may not start promptly, and small-talk about family and friends often prelude business discussions.

Fridays and Religious Holidays are sacred to many practicing Muslims. Stores, offices, and restaurants may be closed, particularly during the early afternoon which is a traditional time for congregational prayer on Fridays. During Ramadan, believers fast during daylight hours and are obligated to conduct charitable acts for those less fortunate. It is advisable for travelers not to eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public places during Ramadan. Playing loud music or engaging in heated debates may also be offensive to those fasting. As is customary at all times while traveling in Muslim countries but particularly true during the Holy Month of Ramadan, women should wear loose conservative clothes and cover their hair with a scarf, at a minimum.

Bottom line: do your research. The most successful business travelers understand the cultural and social nuances of the country they are visiting, putting their hosts at ease and receptive to a lasting professional relationship. Use of proper business etiquette in an Islamic country can lead to lasting business relationships.