Bahrain: 10 tips for business success when working with Bahrainis

How to make a good impression when working with Bahrainis

One of the most important golden rules in all cross-cultural interactions is that “perception is reality”. This means that getting to know the Bahraini perceptions of your culture or company or you is key to business success. The magic lies in “consolidating” or “building on” the positive perceptions and “counteracting” the negative perceptions. One example is that “westerners and the Japanese” are very punctual and time conscious and that is a respected characteristic, so make sure you are always on time, even if you know that your host will be late. It will always work to your advantage. On the other hand, the Arab perception of westerners is that they are “rigid” and “impersonal” so showing your personal side will enhance your image.

Bahrainis live in a multicultural society and are comfortable dealing with visiting business people. Like other Arabs, they are hospitable and place a great deal of emphasis on an outward expression of politeness and quiet demeanour. Aggressive and demonstrative behaviour will not be well received and can rapidly diminish any chance of meaningful business engagement.

Image is important and you should be smartly dressed. Men should always dress in Western style and should not try to adopt the thobe (the long, loose garment worn by Bahrainis). Women should dress respectfully at all times and cover up down to the knees and elbows. The exception to this is at the beach clubs, where designer swimwear is more appropriate. Most Bahraini women wear the hijab, or head covering.

Pay attention to your company’s branding. Prestige is important. Potential clients want to see what your status is within your home country. A good website with strong links to relevant industry partners or associations really helps. Tailor your business plan to the climate. It should include realistic budgets; comments and advice from seasoned practitioners; conservative timelines; and avoid open-ended commitments.

Do not underestimate the importance of entertaining. Accept invitations graciously and learn social etiquette before attending. You are not obliged to reciprocate, although it’s acceptable to do so if you wish.

Understand the importance of forming a bond with your counterpart. Once the bond is established, they will see you as their friend. If you are visiting Bahrain, you should drop in to visit them, even better if there is no business to conduct, issues for follow up or favours to be called upon. Keeping in touch is essential.

10 tips for success when working with Bahrainis

  1. Hospitality is a way of life and is the foundation for any good relationship. Accept and extend invitations and learn about Bahraini etiquette before visiting someone’s office or home. Always accept coffee or tea when offered.
  2. Remember that you will be dealing with people from many different cultures. Learn something about Indian and Pakistani cultural values in particular to help you better understand your colleagues in the Bahrain.
  3. Honour or saving face is exceptionally important in any negotiation or business transaction. Be prepared to be indirect when saying no or declining an offer. Maintaining a sense of harmony will require a high degree of diplomacy and great patience, and you must do your best not to show frustration.
  4. Remember that relationships are the most important element of doing business. You will need to take your time to cultivate and maintain these relationships so do not be in a hurry or be pushy. Once a relationship is formed, it is for life and you can call upon it any time and it is OK to give and receive favours.
  5. Watch your body language as Arabs are very perceptive of gestures and space. Maintain good eye contact at all times, expect people to come close to you and be very tactile. It is not unusual for your Bahraini colleague (if they are an Arab) to hold your hand for a long time or sit closely to you (if you are a man).
  6. Behave with sensitivity where alcohol is concerned. Some Bahrainis drink but never assume. Also steer clear of anything that could be construed as pornographic, all drugs and all products connected with pork. During Ramadan, respect the customs of not eating, drinking or smoking during daylight hours.
  7. Status is important and will be observed. Always dress well and behave with dignity and when visiting Bahrain, stay in a good hotel and entertain in good restaurants.
  8. Negotiations may take a long time and require several visits. This is partly to build trust and partly since decisions can be made elsewhere. Indeed, decisions are made at the top, by consensus, often with the help of various contacts. In contrast, once a plan has been agreed on, your Bahraini counterpart may expect swift action. Having said this, price drives most business negotiations.
  9. Allow plenty of time for several rounds of negotiations per client and be prepared for delays. Do not plan your trip months in advance and always confirm appointments a few days ahead of your trip.
  10. Since business is personal, remember that the spoken word or verbal communication is more important than written communication. You get better results and quicker responses by meeting people or calling them rather than writing to them. Minimise your reliance on faxes and e-mails to “contractual” issues. Typically, most meetings in the Arab world are “circular” rather than “linear”. This means that your Bahraini counterpart will in most cases not stick to a fixed agenda in terms of order, re-visit points when you thought you had cleared them and regularly raise personal issues, comments or observations on the middle of a business discussion. They do this for a variety of reasons including diffusing of tension when the tough gets going and giving everyone time and space to re-think their positions.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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