Cultural intelligence in the Arab world: a how-to

Diplomatic crises. Broken business deals. Fractured relationships. All solvable, says Yarnu founder Rana Najem, with a little cultural intelligence

My book isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts I recently spoke at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, and the most recurrent feedback I heard was, “I’ve been here for 10 years but I knew none of this until I read your book.” It looks at the reasons why things are the way that they are, and is a deeper discussion on the values and beliefs that drive our behaviour.

I started off as a journalist working with CNN during the First Gulf War, and began to see how people from different cultures saw things in completely different lights. Then, I worked with the late His Majesty King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan in his foreign press office and discussed policies and positions with foreign journalists. We were using the same words, but meaning completely different things.

During my work with the British embassy in Jordan I worked with six different ambassadors, six different foreign secretaries and I cannot tell you the number of times the little things, the nuance that averted a lot of diplomatic crises and made a lot of difference to getting the work done.

The core value in the Arab culture is honour and the majority of problems that people have experienced is by not understanding how central that is – the concept of pride and reputation, and how they drive behaviour and almost everything we do. Once you get a grasp of that you’re able to understand why we are the way we are.

We use a very indirect style of communication which can involve third parties. That can cause a lot of conflict and stress for non-Arabs who think that we are going behind their backs, or involving people that shouldn’t be involved. But it’s really not that way – it’s not just about getting the message across, it’s about how to safeguard my honour, save face and save the relationship, as the relationship is extremely important in an honour-based culture.

If you go back to the origins of the Bedouin culture which shapes Arab values today (even though not all Arab countries originated from them), you can see some values that we have inherited. In the desert it’s very hard to get water or food, and that difficulty inspires our hospitality. It means you are really giving something valuable to your guest, not something you have a hundred of.

Guests are treated like kings the Bedouin tradition is that the guest can stay in your home for three days and three nights before you are allowed to ask them why they are there and how long they are staying. It’s still recognised in some of the rural areas in Arab countries.

The one thing that makes non-Arabs (and most Arabs!) smile is the word inshallah It literally means ‘god willing’, but when I was researching my book I discovered we’re not the only ones that have this phrase. There is a Latin phrase, dio valente, which was used by the English in the 19th century. They would use it at the end of their letters, to indicate that ‘god willing’ whatever I say is going to happen in this letter.

It can mean a lot of things “I am going to do this, but because I have a strong belief in fate it’s not entirely up to me what happens. I will do my best but there are forces more powerful than me that will determine what I do.” Or, it can mean, “It’s never going to happen.” That meaning all comes down to the tone of voice in which it is said.

Dubai is unlike any other place in the world It marries together over 200 nationalities that live in such a small place. It has managed to provide a foundation and the rules that promote coexistence; which is more than just tolerance. And those have helped everyone to see the value of difference, by doing their best to abide by the rules and laws of the country and being more open minded towards one another. And that is a formula that has worked beautifully in Dubai.

Being culturally intelligent doesn’t mean shedding your own skin It just means adjusting the externals but remaining true to your DNA. Respecting others’ values, even if you don’t agree with them, and not thinking they are better or worse – just different.

Rana Najem is a social and cultural intelligence coach and founder of Yarnu. She is also the author of ‘When in the Arab World: An Insider’s Guide to Living and Working with Arab Culture’