Living and working in the Arab World will be completely different from anything else you have so far experienced. The place will be full of wonder and new things to encounter; exciting times – that’s the upside. However, most Western managers find working practices very frustrating and the lifestyle limiting; challenging times – that’s the downside. So how can you prepare for your new posting?

What to do before you leave?

First, search the internet for articles on your destination. Search out expat blogs that really give you a flavour of the issues of day-to-day living. You’ll want to get an understanding of any support you can get in your area and whether there is someone to call on for help. Get in touch with your embassy and ask them for a list of business networks, chambers of commerce and other informal organizations you could hook up with before you leave. It’s always good to have a couple of warm leads before you move to a new place.

Once you have made some connections, start asking questions about how easy it is to mix with locals; what was it like for them when they first moved in; what one thing would they do differently if they had the chance – you know the type of thing. Try and learn from their experiences.

What to expect on arrival?

Nothing will prepare you for the strict way you will have to consistently behave in public, especially if you are coming from the US or a European country. No drinking alcohol in public, no kissing nor holding hands. No unseemly or raucous behaviour. Modesty and decorum at all times.

The degree to which you have to ‘behave’ depends upon the country you are in. The UAE (Dubai etc) is relatively liberal in its attitudes, but in 2009 a British unmarried couple were gaoled for improper and immodest behaviour in a restaurant – they were kissing. Dubai is used to foreigners and you can go around town in normal western clothes. Just remember to be more conservative than back at home – it shows respect for the culture in which you are living – even though other Westerners may not. Bahrain is also moderately ‘relaxed’.

In Saudi Arabia a woman is NOT allowed to socialize in public with a man who is not her husband or a blood relative. She will have to wear an abaya (black cover) over her clothes and have her head and face covered whenever she goes out. Women have to be escorted by a male outside the home (this can be a trusted servant) and cannot have a ‘girls day out’ shopping or meet in a coffee bar for a chat. She’s not allowed to drive or go swimming in the sea. Behaviour is strictly enforced by the religious police whose role it is to keep both citizens and visitors acting in line with their strict moral codes.

Fortunately, there are many expat communities that have homes in compounds. This is to segregate the foreign community and allow expats to live in a manner that suits them away from the eyes of locals.

What are the stages most people go through in adjusting to a new culture?

Everyone goes through similar stages when acculturating – some of us just get through the process quicker and with less stress. Stages two and three are the ones that need to be managed – commonly known as culture shock. If you find you are getting very homesick seek help.

  1. Fun: The excitement and adventure of experiencing new people, things, and opportunities.
  2. Flight: Disorientation can bring the urge to avoid everything and everyone that is different. This stage is when you experience homesickness.
  3. Fight: The temptation to judge people and things that are different as bad or foolish.
  4. Fit: Creative interaction with the new culture that includes a willingness to understand and embrace.

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is inevitable and is a recognised symptom of interacting in an environment that is different – be it work, domestic or both. People used to moving around become more flexible and adaptable, therefore minimising any culture shock symptoms. So how can you recognise culture shock? The typical symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness and loneliness
  • Heightened irritability
  • Feelings of anger, depression, vulnerability
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Constant complaints about the climate
  • Continual offering of excuses for staying indoors
  • Utopian ideas concerning one’s previous culture
  • Continuous concern about the purity of water and food
  • Fear of touching local people
  • Trying to hard to adapt by becoming obsessed with the new culture
  • Refusal to learn the language
  • Overwhelming sense of homesickness
  • Preoccupation about being robbed or cheated
  • Pressing desire to talk with people who “really make sense.”
  • Preoccupation with returning home
  • Questioning your decision to move to this place

Left unchecked, these can lead people to turn to alcohol or drugs to ‘escape’. Beware and be prepared otherwise you may feel alienated and isolated.

How can you lessen the stress of culture shock?

Having information and understanding about culture shock is a first important step to overcoming culture shock. The diagram below depicts the process we will go through. Notice that a positive attitude and making the right choices will help you develop rapport and understanding – then you will be able to straddle both your new and your own culture easily.

Duane Elmer's Cross-Cultural Connections

Source: Duane Elmer's Cross-Cultural Connections (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002

The following actions will help you lessen the stress of culture shock:

  • Focus on what you can control. When we are suffering from culture shock, we usually feel out of control. So, don’t spend energy on things you cannot change.
  • Don’t invest major energy in minor problems. We make “mountains out of molehills” even more quickly in cross-cultural situations than we do in our own culture.
  • Tackle major stressors head on. Don’t avoid things.
  • Ask for help. Create a wide support network as quickly as you can in your target culture. This can include expatriates like yourself as well as people of the local culture. Arabs are extremely sociable and are willing entertainers. Although you may not be invited into their home they will readily extend hospitality in a restaurant or hotel.
  • Write it down. Record your thoughts and frustrations in a journal. This will give you a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings.
  • Compare and Contrast. Learn about the differences between the cultures by comparing and contrasting so you can articulate them. Then see what lessons you can learn and what conclusions can you draw. Is your own culture more individualistic and initiative-taking; proactive? Do you find the Arab culture more collectivist and fatalistic; reactive?
  • Ask questions. Learn about how the Arabs think of people form your country – the more you learn about yourself the more you can understand how to understand others.
  • Read up on cross-cultural theories. Finally, if you are interested, seek out information about how to analyse cultures – there’s a whole science about it – it’s fascinating!

What will be different at work?

There are two characteristics of the Arab World that are particularly frustrating for westerners:

Middle Eastern cultures are very hierarchical which means there will be many levels of authority in an organisation. The ‘top dog’ will probably be an Arab and you may well be frustrated by the way Arab colleagues do not speak there minds or challenge those in authority. Communicating criticism or bad news cannot be done directly. To do so can have a devastating effect on your relationship.

Deadlines have no meaning in this culture. You will need to be punctual but others won’t be! Sometimes it’s a sign of superiority but more often signals a way of life. Insha’Allah meaning ‘God willing’ is a phrase you will hear often in reply to making an appointment or getting things done. Many Westerners cynically say that Insha’Allah more appropriately means ‘I’m not willing”.

Expat advice on various countries can be found
on this expert site:

My other articles related to culture shock can be found here:

What Is Culture Shock?

The Stages of Adjusting To A New Culture

Before You Go: What To Do Before You Leave

Overcoming Culture Shock

The Classic 5-Stage Culture Shock Model

Rhinesmith’s 10 Stages of Culture Shock

Collective Culture Shock

Advice For  Expats Moving to the Arab World

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