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Doing Business in Egypt

A simple guide to understand how the Egyptian business-culture can be managed adequately.
Kwintessential | 21.08.2011
For today's business traveller, doing business abroad happens a lot more frequently and involves visiting a much more diverse range of countries. In today's world, cross cultural communication skills are critical to ensuring success on the international stage. Understanding a country's working practices, communication styles, business culture, protocol and etiquette is important in establishing good business relationships and maximising your potential for success.

This guide to doing business in Egypt offers some very basic pointers on some of the above mentioned areas such as business culture and etiquette. It is not intended to summarise all 'doing business tips' nor meant to stereotype the Egyptians. Within all societies, cultures, religions and cultures people will differ. The guide simply highlights some key areas for consideration when doing business in Egypt.

Islam is practised by the majority of Egyptians and governs their personal, political, economic and legal lives. Islam emanated from what is today Saudi Arabia. The Prophet Muhammad is seen as the last of God's emissaries (following in the footsteps of Jesus, Moses, Abraham, etc) to bring revelation to mankind.

Among certain obligations for Muslims are to pray five times a day - at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening. Friday is the Muslim holy day where men should attend congregational prayers at the mosque.

During the holy month of Ramadan all Muslims must fast from dawn to dusk. Fasting includes no eating, drinking, cigarette smoking, or gum chewing.

Remember alcohol is forbidden in Islam, so never give it as a present unless you are 100% sure that they drink. In those cases where you do give alcohol, make sure it is done discreetly.

If invited to an Egyptian's home, take along some sweets, pastries or baked goods. Flowers are only really used at weddings and funerals. If your host is a devout Muslim, then visit a local souq and pick out something suitable such as oil/perfume, prayer mat or if possible some Zam-Zam water from Mecca.

Meeting & Greeting:
The most common greeting between people is the handshake. Friends and family will also kiss on the cheek. The common greeting you will hear is "Asalamu alaikum". Women are common place in the Egyptian workplace, but not all will feel comfortable shaking a man's hand. If unsure, one should wait to see what the woman does first. If she does not shake hands, then a greeting accompanies by a slight nod of the head is fine.

When doing business in Egypt you will notice the love of titles. The hierarchical nature of Egyptian society means that status is always an issue. Common titles are doctor (for both a medical doctor and an academic), muhendis (engineer) and sheikh (religious scholar).

Most Egyptians should be addressed by their title followed by surname. If no clear title exists then use Mr or Mrs.

Business Meetings:
If you plan to arrange some meetings in Egypt do so only a few weeks in advance. Confirm the meeting prior to leaving for Egypt and also upon arriving. Things change rapidly so it is best to ensure you are at the forefront of their minds.

Remember that bad times to do business are during Ramadan and the last few days of the Hajj season, which is followed by a three day festival. On Fridays very few people will work.

When meeting someone for the first time, never dive straight into business. This would be a sign of disrespect. Ensure you ask personal questions so you get to know the person, and also be willing to discuss your personal circumstances, i.e. children, job, etc. Always wait for the other party to start talking business.

When doing business in Egypt you will soon realise that business and personal are intertwined. Therefore do not be offended if people walk into a meeting and start chatting to your counterpart. This is just part of the process. Remain calm, be patient and you will soon get your counterpart's full attention.

The key to doing business well in Egypt is patience. This is especially true in negotiations. Business meetings will be slow and lengthy affairs as you move from chit-chat to business.

Never use hostile, pushy or pressured tactics when negotiating. This will always work against you. It is best to concentrate on elements such as trust, the personal relationship, mutual benefit, status and of course profitability.

Cultural Note:
Try not to use the left hand to shake hands, pass things or eat. Although Egyptians like to use a lot of hand movements, pointing is seen as rude. Similarly, avoid showing the soles of your shoes or sitting with your legs wide apart.

The above examples point to a few areas one must take into consideration when doing business in Egypt. Such tips are meant as a safety-net for those doing business there to help avoid misunderstandings and promote better communication. Always treat people as individuals, but if in a situation where you feel culturally uncomfortable you can refer back to these tips.
About the author: Kwintessential