Let’s get down to business: You have a client coming in from another country or maybe you are flying in to a new place with certain expectations. Your main goal is to seal the deal and celebrate.
Some may think entertaining a business client is more or less the same across countries but it’s those little things that can turn the meeting into an extraordinary one.
First, let’s head over to Beirut and experience Middle Eastern hospitality. According to Lebanese custom, people greet each other with a hand shake followed by three kisses on the cheek starting from the left. I was initially very confused with this because in Europe I had gotten used to starting from the right.
My host took me to dine in a typical Lebanese restaurant to indulge my taste buds with some fresh warm and cold dishes of mezzeh. Best thing was getting to use my hands to dip pieces of bread into the hummus; this made eating a lot more fun. Try eating with your hands without getting food on your fingers. Songs of Fairuz, one of Lebanon’s classical legends, played in the background.
It is considered an offense not to eat, or at least try, every dish that is offered to you in the Middle East. My trick is to wear pants that can stretch out or a loose dress that will be able to hide a growing belly because, trust me, you will need the space. You will walk out feeling pregnant. Not that I’ve been pregnant, but I imagine it is like that. See, the key is to fill the plate with salads to avoid space for heavy dishes. However, I always bear in mind the desserts which are to die for and basically I am not allowed to say no or my host will get upset. After indulging in a delicious variety of dishes and seeing that the deal was a success, I was in luck as the belly dancer came out, just in time to celebrate.
Flying closer to the center of the world, North Africa, the experience is closer to the heart. The host usually likes to bring a foreign visitor over to his home to eat a home-cooked traditional meal. Their motto is “Feed your guests, even if you are starving.” Note to self: always bring a small gift of gratitude when you arrive for dinner.
I’ve been told it’s respectful to take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, which is a very common custom in the Middle East and Asian region. Best to wear sandals or matching socks; you don’t want that awkward moment when you decide to wear your bright pink sock alongside a Christmas sock with Rudolf and his bright red nose.
I was greeted in Casablanca with a hand shake which followed a placement of their hand close to their heart in a show of affection. A tradition I definitely stole after my visit. I was then welcomed with milk and dates. I had been advised to compliment the host on their home but I think they forgot to mention not touch the objects in the house. Anyhow, I may have butter fingers but I’m also quick at catching things! Like the Middle East it was important to try even a small portion of most dishes but I made sure to leave room for the couscous.
Across the desert and over to the Arabian Gulf, it is not common for women to attend business dinners. In the past, women would sit in a separate room or table with other women while the men talked shop amongst themselves. However, today traditions are changing and starting to welcome the idea of women at most events.
Khaleeji men shake hands using a good, firm grip which signifies confidence. However, I usually don’t always shake hands with men unless a man puts his hand out first as it is frowned upon by some.
If you are in the Muslim region it is important to present yourself in a conservative manner. I either wear a suit or a knee-length dress and cover my shoulders. Almost all dinner gatherings are usually held at a fine dining restaurant in a prestigious hotel, many haves the finest chefs from all over the world. The Gulf has so many cuisine choices that going to a restaurant is like traveling to another region from the people to the dishes.
Like all Arab countries the host will order as many dishes to assure your comfort and contentment during the dinner. But luckily, I don’t have to eat as much because as long as you are happy the host is always happy.
The one thing in the Gulf that is common is that when the evening comes to the end and the bill is brought to the table almost everyone, especially the elderly or men, will create a huge fuss about treating everyone. It is a sign of appreciation and generosity which is a trait unique to this part of the world. So never say how much you like something they have or you will be forced to have it because they know you like it.
My most important advice is embarking on a strict diet before departing for the Middle East for meetings.
Nadia Idriss Mayen, a journalist at Al Arabiya, can be reached at email@example.com