Thursday morning 09:00, February 2011. A cup of Dutch coffee in the Institute of the Tropics, Amsterdam. On behalf of our project for a Saudi Arabian company, project management organized a cultural awareness training on Saudi Arabian culture. Main objective: get acquainted with the basics of Saudi culture as well as the do’s and don’ts in dealing with Arab businessmen. My main belief in encountering different cultures always is to focus on the similarities instead of the differences and, I have to say, during my travel abroad that never disappointed me so far. Saudi Arabia however is another cup of tea, the trainer ensures us: Never show the back of your feet, always eagerly inhale every piece of information on someone's business card in the first 10 seconds after you received it, and never enter an elevator with a single woman already standing.
A few aspects seem returning: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enforces a strict separation between women and men; when meeting Arabs in business, be very humble, reserved and strictly follow the etiquettes, and finally; don’t bore Arab businessmen with highly detailed and informative content, but rather overwhelm them with hugs and hand rubbing. And there we sat with our content dense 50+ page PowerPoint presentation for tomorrow’s project meeting. The project we were going to execute was tightly scheduled and required accurate action for the client, especially related to the delivery of data and information. The message that we were aiming to translate during the meeting was impregnated with risks, issues and actions while today’s trainer emphasized that a good business relationship, mutual trust and close friendship were absolute requirements for the Arabs to act at all. Only once that was realized, gold watches and limousine cars were to come.
Two months later. An authentic Arabic dinner with the client in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Looking back on my stay in the Kingdom for the last 2 weeks, I can conclude that most of what the Cultural Awareness training elaborated on only relates to dealing with the Royal family of Saudi Arabia. Not that the course was useless, working with Saudi’s requires a more tactful approach than we are used to in the Netherlands. But that already applies when you cross the border of Italy or Spain. Arabs are very helpful and friendly people and above all, smart and highly educated. The structured and data driven approach we take during this project is openly accepted and after some tea and dates, the hand rubbing is easily replaced by Excel sheets, PowerPoint slides and value stream mappings. The only difference I see here is the fact that Saudi's seem much more teamed-up than us when their office outfit are regarded!