Coffee In The Middle East; The Best Way To Do Business

Showing respect over a cup of coffee is a founding element of Middle Eastern family and business culture, writes leadership expert Tommy Weir.

By
Tommy Weir
August 13, 2013

As a leader in the Middle East, you would be wise to remove your watch for a moment and adopt the practice of having a regular cup of coffee with your boss, employees, customers, and even prospective clients. The dividends from this practice far outweigh the anticipated loss of time.

But don’t limit the idea of having coffee only to coffee, as the practice can include tea, shisha, or a meal as well.

This may be very surprising advice while we are in the heart of the holy month of Ramadan. But, that cup of coffee does not have to take place in the office, during daylight.

I regularly hear ex-pats say, “Being in Dubai during Ramadan is dreadful.” To this I reply, you must understand not only the religion but the traditions of the region. Ramadan is an excellent time to practice this tip – during Suhoor. It is the best time of the year to visit people.

Since the fifteenth century and the earliest evidence of coffee drinking, the practice of having coffee with others has been an integral part of Arab society. More important than the coffee itself is the prevalence of the coffee house and the daily ritual.

Coffee is a way of life. Friends gather for hours over coffee to discuss the matters of the day, society, and the world. The routine is more of a cultural relic.

A visit to any coffee shop across the Arab world, will find every chair filled with people sitting for hours over coffee, snacks, and shisha while discussing the matters of life.

On my first visit to a café in the region, I was shocked to see people talking, laughing, and carrying on the whole evening and into the night. It is clear that this lifestyle becomes a primary source of knowledge sharing, with people hotly debating the news, or the way things should be, and seeking opinions on matters of work.

Showing respect over coffee is an important part of Middle Eastern family culture, as exemplified in the practice of having a regular (usually daily) cup of coffee with one’s father.

In the West, it might seem the “right thing” to do to meet dad for coffee periodically. In Arab culture, it is the honourable thing to do to pass by dad’s house daily for coffee; it happens without forethought, as if to imply, why would you think of doing otherwise?

When line managers recognise and practice the daily cup of coffee ritual in the workplace, they model a patriarchal style of management, and this practice results in effective workplace relationships, improved performance, and increased employee engagement and retention.

Here in the Middle East, having coffee is about much more than the coffee. Where I come from, having a coffee is often about enjoying the coffee’s taste (and getting the much-needed caffeine) and spending time casually with friends, but in the Middle East having coffee shows respect and value, and—most important—it is where trust is built.

Trust is the backbone of Arab society, and it is the currency of business. Trust is not built over random encounters or official business in the office; it is built, matured, and sustained over time.

In Middle Eastern culture, one mechanism for this is spending time over a cup of coffee or tea. As difficult as this is to express in words, there is a relationship between time and trust.

So returning to the heart of this tip, it is advised that you remove your watch or press pause on your stopwatch and invest time over coffee or a meal to build trust.

Actually, having a cup of coffee is the key to virtually all relationships in the Arab world. To succeed in the Middle East, it is imperative to understand the impact of time and not limit yourself to days on a calendar.

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