Once considered the most liberal of the GCC states, accusations of human rights violations since the beginning of the protest movement in 2011 have cast doubts on Bahrain’s reputation. Though it remains one of the more liberal states in the region, please remember that Bahrain is a Muslim country deeply rooted in local traditions and customs. The style of conducting business therefore differs widely from that of Western Europe or the USA. A basic understanding of Bahraini culture can earn you respect, and give you the edge over your competitors.
Arab culture is known for its hospitality, and Bahrainis are no exception. Your host or business partner will, to some extent, observe traditional customs during your meeting. One of these traditions is the open-door policy: don’t be surprised if your meeting is interrupted by the arrival of another guest. Your host is unlikely to turn anyone away as this would be considered very rude. The initial greeting may be followed by a period of silence while you wait for tea or coffee to be served. Don’t refuse refreshments that are offered to you. The meeting starts once everyone’s cups have been filled.
Every business meeting is preceded by small talk, which happens either before, during, or after refreshments. This serves to build trust — a vital aspect of business in Bahrain. You may be asked personal questions about your life and your family, and are expected to show an interest in your host’s personal life too. However, never ask any direct questions about female family members, unless you know them very well, as this may cause embarrassment to your host.
It is unusual for any decisions to be made or contracts to be signed at a first meeting. In fact, be prepared for a much slower pace of business than what you may be used to. As mentioned above, winning the trust of your Arab business partners is an important first step if you want to achieve something. People don’t do business with strangers in Bahrain, so invest time in building a good reputation. Similarly, your business partners will expect you to trust them, so being too pushy will come across as impolite. You should take someone’s word with as much weight as you would a written agreement.
The style of communication may also take some getting used to. It is not very direct and you will have to learn to interpret vague statements. This is due to the reluctance in Arab culture to be either the bearer of bad news, or to simply refuse anybody anything. You are unlikely to ever receive a straight "no" in answer to your requests, and it’s a good idea to ban the word from your vocabulary during business negotiations. A lack of commitment or very evasive language usually serves as sufficient indication of a negative answer.
Communication in Bahrain may be more formal than in your home country: it is important to use someone’s full name and title when you greet them. The most senior person should always be greeted first. This reflects the still very hierarchical society based on traditional family values.
Women are much better placed in the Bahraini business world and society than in many other Arab countries. While female employment was traditionally limited to education and medicine, local women increasingly work in banking, finance, and other service industries too. Expat women can be found in all sorts of professions — medicine, the law, education, PR, and the hotel industry.
As a foreign woman working in Bahrain, you should nevertheless observe certain rules. First of all, dress conservatively out of respect for your host culture. Men and women often do not mingle in their free time, enjoying meals and entertainment separately. Try to keep a certain distance from your male colleagues as being too friendly may be misinterpreted. There should be no physical contact between you and Bahraini men, the only exception being if he extends his hand to you first during the greeting process.
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