Doing Business in Egypt
Doing Business in Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn
We often receive email from non-Egyptian people who wish to conduct business in Egypt. And since we have some experience in this matter, there are certainly some aspects of doing business there that we can reflect upon.
For the most part, Egyptian businessmen and government employees, particularly those in high positions, tend to be more conservative than their counterparts in the west. For example, while one may see many photos of casually dressed US Presidents, one rarely if ever sees his counterpart in Egypt, President Mubarak, without suit and tie. There is no "casual Friday". Furthermore, business meetings are usually quite formal, and there are many dos and donts, which must be observed.
Last month I referenced a book called Culture Shock, Egypt by Susan L. Wilson and published by the Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company. To a large extent, I dismissed the book as a suitable reference for tourists (though even for them, it contains good information on the culture). Essentially, tourists can take a liberal approach to travel in Egypt, and most Egyptians will turn a blind eye on many cultural infractions made by tourists. In addition, tourists usually travel with tours and stay in hotels where the Egyptians they encounter have grown used to western mannerisms.
But I must say that the book would be extremely useful to someone wishing to conduct business in Egypt. Here, one must take a much more considerate and respectful approach than the tourist, as he or she will often be dealing with older, more conservative Egyptians.
The Go-Between - Get an Egyptian Representative
Sitting in the bar at the Nile Hilton, I listen to foreign business people lambaste their attempts to arrange meeting with government officials. Frustrations mount for them, but not for me. I have a go-between.
Finding an Egyptian businessman who walks the walk and talks the talk to act as a go-between, to assist in setting up meetings and even translate your ideas to a high official can mean the difference between success and failure. Much more so then in the west, Egyptian business people network, and often have a family member or close friend holding a position which will allow him to gain a foothold for an appointment. In fact, Egyptian business people cultivate and nourish these affiliations. Also, after the meeting is arranged, a go-between can instruct the foreign businessperson about the specific nuances for the official with whom you will be meeting .
Perhaps even more importantly, you may have considerable time to explain your business to your Egyptian representative, but your meeting with a high official may be extremely limited in time. Having someone with you who is capable of explaining your business in the native language can make all the difference in the world when you are limited to a 30 minute meeting.
How Meetings Work
Initial business meeting with Egyptians are often very formal affairs. They usually begin with coffee and small talk, even in situations where the time is very limited. Eventually, the subject of your meeting will come up, but Egyptians business people are just as hospitable as tourists find other Egyptians. In fact, if the meeting is not limited in time, this can cause some real problems. For example, on my last trip to Egypt, I met with many hotel managers, in meetings that had no time restraints. My schedule fell hopelessly behind, primarily due to their gracious hospitality. Drinks had to be served, and social conversation observed, prior to conducting any business.
When the subject of your specific business does come up, if you have an Egyptian representative with you, a go-between, allow him to explain the major points of your business in Arabic if possible. While Egyptians are renowned linguists and many educated Egyptians speak multiple languages, in a short meeting, your points will be made much more concisely by someone who understands your business and can explain it to an official in his native tongue. Don't be surprised if at some point, voices are somewhat raised, or there even appears to be an argument developing. This is not uncommon when Egyptians discuss matters.
At the conclusion of a successful business meeting, where future business must be discussed or acted upon, make specific arrangements. The old "lets get your people and my people together" is not enough. Very specific appointments, schedules and contact personnel should be arranged, or what seems like a successful meeting may end up drifting into oblivion. In other words, tie the specific progression of events that must take place down to people, places and times. Otherwise, there it is likely that once out of sight, your business might be out of mind...forever.
One reason I suggest that business people might wish to read Culture Shock, Egypt is that there are more customs and formalities then can be covered in a article such as this. However, we will attempt to cover as much as possible.
As everywhere else, stay away from politics and religion. Most foreign business people know little of either which concerns Egypt, or even if they do, they can quickly get in trouble by broaching these topics. Beyond religion and politics, it is usually best to stay clear of questions about the Egyptian business person's family, and particularly female members of the family. Perhaps you may be told that the business person's daughter attends the American University in Cairo, but asking her age, or to see a picture might very well be interpreted as showing suspicious attention, even with a businessperson you have grown to know personally. In such cases, asking about the welfare of his or her family in general, or about specific male members of the family is as far as such discussions should usually be taken.
Egyptians are very clean, and certainly older, successful Egyptians appreciate good, conservative dress. Do wear a suit and tie, but not only that, make sure that everything is as spotless as possible, and take care to have polished shoes. Also take note that few Egyptian business people wear beards or long hair, and may consider others who do somewhat less professional.
Sit with both feet on the floor. Showing the bottom of your shoes to someone is considered an insult which may be ignored in a tourist hotel but is less likely to be by a conservative businessperson. Refrain from using hand gestures, for example, in motioning someone over. Call them by name, as in Egypt and much of the rest of the world, such hand gestures are often considered rude.
Eye contact is good, or at least is when meeting with Egyptian men. Being able to look the Egyptian in the eye conveys honesty. However, there are Egyptian business women, and in some cases, this may convey too much intimacy. It is well to note that many aspects of dealing with Egyptian Businessmen and women are dramatically different. For example, after getting to know an Egyptian businessman, he may give you a warm welcome in the form of a hug. But for an Egyptian businesswoman, this should never be done. Principally, when dealing with businesswomen, avoid any hint of intimacy.
Learn the title by which a high government official is to be addressed. Most are very proud of the stature to which they have climbed, and expect a certain degree of formality in this respect. This is a particularly hard concept for Americans, who have come to expect a down home attitude by many politicians, but in Egypt, one does not address a minister as Mr. El-Beltagui. Rather, he is his Excellency Dr. Beltagui, or simply, his Excellency.
Most of the people I know who travel to Egypt on business take a gift bag. It goes over full of gifts, and returns laden with souvenirs. Giving a small gift in a business meeting is an old and established custom in Egypt. The gift need not be too expensive, and in this regard, usually should not be, as it might be an embarrassment. Yet it should probably have some meaning. For example, being from Texas, I often take items which are related to the Southwest US. But a gift is expected, and you may be very embarrassed without one, as you will probably be given something by the businessman or government official.
In the west, we accept a business card, often without even glancing at it. In Egypt, accept the card, examine it, and perhaps even ask a simple clarification question, such as, "when are you available at this phone number". It is simply considered polite to make a little larger ado about business cards in Egypt.
In a word, DONT. While tipping is a common occurrence in the tourism industry, government officials and business people should never be offered a tip. High government officials are usually much more adverse to this then what some would make them out to be. For business people, the profit motive of the business deal will be their reward. They consider themselves, as they should, to be professionals.
Learn at Least a Few Words of Egyptian Arabic
Certainly you will be better respected, and more successful if you understand and can speak Arabic. But for many of us, learning to speak fluent Arabic is not an option. But that doesn't stop you from learning a few words, such as thank you, hello, good by and please. Buy an Arabic phrase book and learn to say some simple phrases. The attempt will be appreciated, as educated Egyptians often understand multiple languages, and those from the west who make no attempt to speak the language accentuate a perception throughout the world of our egotism.
On Being Patient and Understanding Egyptian Time
As stated previously, tie down as many aspects of your intended business to specifics as possible, but then you must learn to expect to operate on Egyptian time. This is not to say that you can show up to a business meeting when it suits you, and particularly not with a government official. Its just that the government official might not be there. Just remember that Egypt moves at its own pace, and this pace can be frustrating to westerners.
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Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
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