Understanding The Arab Culture
A Cross-Cultural Perspective
‘Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail ’
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Even though books on the Arab world are in abundance, this book goes where few books have ever gone, or dared to go before. There remains a whole body of academics, scholars and writers who feel that culture is rather a fuzzy, intangible and almost a mercurial ‘thing’ and writing about it is fraught with dangers, such as generalizations, simplifications and stereotyping. Some would go as far as describing books of this type as being un-scientific or at least too subjective. Amongst some ‘Arab specialists’, the idea that one can write about ‘Arabs’ in this present day and age is purely anachronistic and obsolete. At the most extreme level, they believe that the only true Arabs remaining are the nomadic Bedouins that are few and largely marginalised throughout the region we call the ‘Arab World’.
This chapter aims to qualify and to a large extent defend a work of this type whilst at the same time outlining certain limitations and shortcomings. The next sections will highlight many realities and dilemmas about cross-cultural issues, theories, practical applications and common sense advice and lessons learnt. It aims to present culture in perspective as neither irrelevant nor the solution of all problems but rather another tool in a fast globalizing world.
THE PLACE OF GENERALIZATIONS
Firstly, it is inconceivable to envisage any scientific pursuit without the need to resort to assumptions and generalizations, and this is particularly true for social sciences. In the crosscultural world, we are often dealing with the art of probabilities rather than the science of certainties. Human behaviour is neither completely predictable nor utterly unpredictable but it is subject to norms, trends and patterns.
Accordingly, with absolutely no pretensions whatsoever, this book is a generalist book that captures general trends, norms and behavioural patterns that prevail throughout the Arab world whilst at the same time accepts that there are variations in both regional and country specific spheres.
Secondly, the Arab World despite its geographic spread and massive population has a lot of commonalties within it. To borrow a term from Samuel Huntingdon, we can list no major ‘Cultural Fault Lines’ across the region in such a way where serious barriers exist in language, religion, values, literature or in arts and literature. There are certainly certain racial variations within the region, and in some cases, these minorities have expressed aspirations for various degrees of autonomy and recognition, but at the same time, the Arab world has been a minorities may differ from the majority in, say, religious beliefs but will find commonalities in language and history, or they may differ in race, but find commonalities in religion and values.
The reader will forgive me for recalling an incident that happened many years ago when I was teaching about Algeria. A colleague of mine who was a ‘fairly militant Berber or Amazigh’ resented and objected to the use of the word ‘Arab’ throughout the notes summarizing 20 Algerian cultural values. He requested that he edit them to provide a ‘more specific’ description of Algerian society. It was most astonishing when he returned the notes a few days later with only substituting the word ‘Arab’ with ‘Algerian’ and simply no more. The objection to the notes was purely political, reflecting ‘political’ aspirations rather than cultural components.
In term of commonalities, and to begin with, there is the Arabic language, which is not only a means of communication, but also the prime medium for exchanging information and the transfer of ideas and concepts from Morocco to Oman. It is frequently said that poetry is the repository of the Arab culture, and I know of no other modern day culture that continues to place so much weight on poetry as Arabs do and across the region. Here we are talking about literary or written Arabic, rather than spoken dialects.
It is said that when President Nasser of Egypt met King Saud of Saudi Arabia nearly half a century ago, they needed a translator even though they both spoke Arabic. Today with the advent of the internet and Satellite TV, the Arab world is more closely linked than ever before.
Whilst dialects are not disappearing ‘Modern Arabic’, as it is now called, is a moderated form of literary Arabic that is widely understood by Arabs throughout the region. In the last ten years, media and technology has brought the region further together more than political rhetoric has done in the last hundred years. It is not unusual for a Jordanian to be watching a Yemeni Channel or for a Tunisian to favour a Qatari TV station over local stations, and the medium of language is not only breaking barriers but also giving rise to further exchange of thought systems, arts, values and so on.
We live in an age where Arabization is as inevitable as globalization. Thanks to technological advances, a singer, broadcaster, artist, poet or commentator can easily address Arabs across the region. As an example, music and arts which are two important components of culture are truly fusing across the region. In the same way that the world is becoming a global village as more political, economic and social barriers are collapsing, the Arab world is itself going through ‘uncontrolled’ changes.
Then there is Islam, which provides the main moral code that underpins the Arab way of life in so many details. Not only is Islam the religion of the majority in the region, but also mainstream Islam remains the key determinant, and sometimes the inhibitor, of many behavioural patterns, practices and aspirations. As one observer had once told me, ‘had it not been for Islam, only God knows the excesses to which many Arab rulers and countries would have gone to’. To realise the impact of Islam in modern times, there are plenty of examples where even the most sectarian leaders in the region have, lawfully or unlawfully, used it as the most potent rallying point for the masses.
Equally, today with Satellite TV, the internet and all that which new technology offers, religious dogma and sermons reach their audience throughout the region at the speed of light. There is also a common sense of history, which continues to present many Arabs with a golden age that influences not only their thought systems, but also their aspirations and how they see themselves and the world around them. Indeed, one of the essential components of culture is the value people place on Heroes, and Arab history, past and present, has a rich and varied repertoire of heroes, real and false.
Wherever you go in the region, it is almost impossible not to find a school or a street named after Islamic conquerors, philosophers, scientists or modern day leaders. The same goes for arts and literature, where, say, a Syrian would be as proud as a Moroccan in celebrating Andalusian architecture, music, poetry or philosophy.
When one combines language, religion and history, the cultural implications are immense and all inclusive. For example, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria will see themselves as major players in Islamic history through Saladin, and the same goes for the Berbers in North Africa as far as Tariq Bin Ziyad (conqueror of Andalusia) just to name one Berber Islamic hero.
Christian Arabs have also played significant role in the Islamic civilization in bygone days and more recently they were the prime revivers of the Arabic language and Arab nationalism.
I feel obliged to recall another anecdotal evidence of a Moroccan (or Berber) friend who, when first arrived at the university in UK, joined the Arab society. After a few months, he decided that maybe he would fit better in the Islamic society as he had certain religious tendencies, plus his personal reservation that he was not essentially an Arab. It took about a year before he went and joined the Afro-Caribbean society on the basis that Morocco was essentially African in culture and geography. After a few months, he rejoined the Arab society and that put an end to it. Needless to say that had there been a Berber society at the university he would have joined and felt comfortable. However, I use this example to demonstrate how there are very few differences or fault lines between Arabs, Kurds, Berbers or Nubians (Egypt).
this book addresses traditional Arab culture as a mindset and as manifested in collective behaviour, not as manifested at the personal level. You will no doubt meet many Arabs who, due to their education and degree of Westernisation, will not fit all the patterns outlined in this book, but they are the minority or the exception. The majority of the people you will meet will subscribe to many of the values and patterns of behaviour outlined in this book, whether they are related to attitudes towards time or style of communication.
It is true that in the modern world, individualism is becoming more of a trend, and the Arab world is certainly not entirely immune from this. Equally, with globalization, we are certainly seeing the emergence of world trends in so many walks of life from consumerism to personal expectations and from business ethics to international transactions. However, in spite of this the Arab culture remains largely collective, governed by consensus, shame and face, where personal expression is tolerated only up to a point. This collectivism is combined with a level of conservatism that does not easily or quickly tolerate deviant behaviours. melting pot for nearly fourteen centuries.
For example, some In fact, Westernization as a generic adjective is actually very much a gross generalization and as such is a vague and deceptive concept. Unless an Arab is born and bred outside the Arab world, westernization in an assimilative thorough manner is almost impossible, and to entertain such possibility would lead to disappointment. This is unless we think of Westernization as just a superficial and fickle form that does not go beyond dress, food and few liberal attitudes.
THE DANGERS OF STEREOTYPING
There are two dangers that can undermine any book of this type – stereotyping and over-simplification. Too many generalizations can mean that we potentially lock the Arab culture into a fixed stereotype, thus denying the Arab culture its sense of dynamism, diversity and its ability to adapt to new conditions.
Too many over-simplifications can easily mislead the reader into believing that the opinions and practical tips given in this book will simply apply to all Arabs irrespective of their age, sex, education, wealth, social background and so on. This would deny the essence of diversity that colours social existence the world over. The reader may ask, with justice, what about personality? Does it not affect behaviour and attitudes?
In this respect, this book comes with several cautions. Firstly, it is not intended to be a definitive account of Arab culture, but a simple-to-use set of guidelines and ‘common sense’ safe practices that may be of use to those who are not familiar with the Arab culture.
Secondly, there are many situations where several solutions may exist, but the solution given was considered by me to be the safest or least controversial. Thirdly, we must always treat people as individuals not as cultural stereotypes, whilst recognizing that culture is largely responsible for shaping and polishing personality.
The interplay between personality, common sense and norms of behaviour is a complex one that has received a lot of attention within cross-cultural literature. To start with, whilst personality can represent free choice in individualistic cultures, most cultures, no matter how individualistic they are, will set limits to the levels of freedom practised by the individual so as to prevent infringements on collective perceptions of what forms right and wrong, desirable or undesirable, efficient and inefficient and so on.
Hence, individualism in how it is expressed is in itself subject to ‘national cultural ’ limitations and norms. Reversely, collectivism means different things in different cultures, and therefore it will manifest itself differently across apparently similar cultures. In the final analysis when we state that Arabs, say, are collective as opposed to individualistic, and while this is a simplification, it has certain connotations that remain valid across the culture in as far as it forms a guiding principle from within the culture and for those looking at it from the outside.
However, the validity of this ‘simplification’ is balanced out by the various pre-qualifications and explanations setting the context and manifestations of such behaviour. An over-simplification would be to state that ‘all Arabs will lie for a friend in need’ or that ‘all Westerners are materialistic’ or that ‘Swiss people have no sense of humour’ and so on. Such statements are not only ‘over-simplifications’ but are ‘stereotypical’ that are ‘value driven’ and ‘judgemental’. Stereotyping occurs when we compare our best ‘values’ with the worst ‘practices’ of another culture.
The cross-cultural argument for countering such unfair comparison is that the ‘best human values’ such as truth, hospitality, integrity, kindness, and respect are universal across cultures. However, how these values are manifested or put into practice will and does invariably differ across cultures and to the extent where such difference will give rise to confusion, miscommunication and misunderstandings. This is one simplification that has many limitations and is highly debatable but nonetheless it is useful in as far as it is a prerequisite for any collaboration across cultures.
COMMONSENSE AND GREYAREAS
Within any culture, there are many situations when right or wrong, good or bad are clearly understood by all as a matter of general knowledge, be it prescribed in religious texts, embedded in laws or commonly agreed for generations. This applies to almost everything from dress code to food and from symbols to how people may talk or walk. However, we are just as often confronted with situations where such clear rules do not exist or they are vague, open to interpretations or where there are no cultural, religious, social or even political precedents.
This is the grey area or the blind spot where immediate answers as to dos and don’ts are not clear and open to interpretation. Typically it is in these grey areas where social change across time and variations within the same culture will occur, giving rise to dynamism and diversity to any one culture. Common sense pertains when there are no clear written rules; it is a deductive process that combines information gathering and interpretation to emerge with logical answers, conclusions or solutions.
More often than not, culture consists of a set of unwritten values, beliefs and customs which are passed from one generation to another as the correct way to perceive, think and feel. Notwithstanding this, what is common sense in one culture maybe nonsensical in another, and vice versa.
To this extent, there are sometimes questions or problems where there are no clear rules or solutions, but which require a degree of rationalization to emerge with common sense answers. For example, what do you do if you are about to give a presentation to a group of Arabs, and how would that be different if the audience was actually American? This is where the
theory comes to the rescue with its analytical tools, analogies and systems of derivation, interpretation and extrapolation. When these are applied to any one culture, we can emerge with reasonable, sensible, probable and likely scenarios and solutions that can form a set of guidelines.
The example of giving a presentation is very important here. We may begin by asking what are the ground rules with regards to the spoken word versus the written word? Are there any preferences or precedences to be taken into account? We may then explore the question of time and how it is perceived. Do people respect punctuality or is it secondary to other things such as mood, harmony and type of event? Are there any natural breaks for lunch or tea or prayers? We can also investigate the rules and etiquette regarding hospitality and the guest–host relationship. Is lavish hospitality expected or is it frowned upon? Does it depend on hierarchy, and if so what is the role of hierarchy?
All of these questions will lead to common sense answers and approximations about what can be done, what should be done and what may not be done.
Chapter 10 of this book approaches the question of doing business in the Arab World in terms of what makes sense and what does not. The fact of the matter is that there are no written rules about doing business in the Arab World, neither is there an Arab management theory. In this respect, the Arab culture as a whole serves as the foundation for exploring the subject of business. Another source was the cross-cultural theory itself in the shape of Chapter 3, which explores a number of key cross-cultural dimensions.
THE CROSS-CULTURAL THEORY
The cross-cultural theory has evolved in response to serious questions about the ever-increasing level and volume of international transactions and multicultural interactions. Multinationals have expressed serious concerns about the increasing cost of international failures and have shown interest in using culture as a source of competitive advantage. For example:
- What is the best way to manage the relocation of employees Worldwide?
- How do you train people to become effective international managers and how do you build a successful multicultural team?
- How is globalization influencing culture worldwide, and how do different cultures learn from one another?
- How can you bring an Indian, a Japanese, a Scandinavian and a Brit to work together as a team in a harmonious and effective manner?
Today, the cross-cultural theory manages to combine many disciplines ranging from anthropology to psychology, from organizational behaviour to leadership, and from communication skills to business ethics. For many people the greatest achievement of the cross-cultural theory lies in its ability to produce neutral, non-judgemental, comparative terminology and literature that recognizes diversity as a source of richness, not conflict.
This noble and politically correct stance may be debatable in certain quarters, but it is nevertheless a highly effective tool for crosscultural dialogue and collaboration. Cross-cultural theory provides us with techniques and tools to study culture in a safe and non-controversial way, and with due sensitivity. By virtue of asking important questions such as what makes a good leader in Spain as opposed to say China, and how does gender impact on business etiquette and so on, the cross-cultural theory, despite many advances, generates more questions than answers, and in a way, creating awareness of differences and for addressing such differences in a structured and systematic way.
Over the years the cross-cultural theory has evolved and we are now at a stage when it is taught in most universities as part of the curriculum for students of management. Twenty years ago, it was barely mentioned or acknowledged. Today there are many crosscultural models or frameworks that have been provided by pioneers such as Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars. Whereas 30 years ago, our understanding or modelling of cultural differences was limited to a few dimensions such as time, space, body language and hierarchy, today we can now talk about 56 cross-cultural dimensions that have been observed. In this book, a number of these dimensions have been selected and explored in depth in Chapter 3 but with specific reference to the Arab culture.
The importance of these dimensions lies in that they are non-judgemental, and so they do not suggest the superiority of one culture over the other but rather provide tools for making comparisons and emerging with practical conclusions. It is hoped that this book’s exploration of these dimensions will be revealing not only of the Arab culture but also of the Western culture, thus providing the reader with some tools for selfcontemplation and questioning.
THE ROLE OF CULTURE
A fundamental question that is often thrown up for discussion whenever culture is mentioned is whether we can ever exaggerate the role of culture.
Most cross-cultural writers and trainers are, by default, biased to the role and position of culture in international business. They would not be good at what they did if they did not feel a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject. At any rate, it is all too easy to exaggerate the role of culture on two scores.
Firstly, the reader must not think that culture will influence and dominate their international assignment in everything they do. Raising the subject of culture is not an invitation to try and find culture in everything one does, and more importantly, it is not a license to blame culture every time one hits a problem. To do either is nothing short of paranoia and my advice to the expatriate in this case is to take a break.
Secondly, readers should not find themselves preoccupied with knowing everything that needs to be known about Arabs and their culture in this particular case. To suggest that is tantamount to stating that Arabs are not tolerant or hospitable to outsiders. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Arabs will make many allowances, and in many cases, they would consider it rude to point out to you that you have made a mistake.
Nonetheless, whilst we should not exaggerate the role of culture, we should not underestimate it or assume that it is irrelevant. In reality, many people tend to ignore culture until there is a problem. Culture must become a factor in considering business options, solutions, tactics and potential challenges. How will your counterpart react to bad news and how will you best approach a difficult subject? How can you anticipate possible reactions to a proposal and what can you do when competition gets fiercer? What is the best negotiation stance and how can you get the best out of a multicultural team?
All the above questions have many important cultural connotations. The importance of face and honour can never be underestimated when delivering bad news or working with collective societies. Some societies relish and encourage fierce competition more than others and some cultures are more risk embracing than others. On the other hand, bargaining and long drawn-out negotiations are tolerated and expected in some cultures, whilst being avoided in others.
Delays in the decision-making processes and the importance of consensus management are more apparent in collective cultures than they are in individualistic cultures.