Status, hierarchy and wealth are the cornerstones of most Bahraini businesses. Status is acquired through seniority based on a hierarchical structure which is perhaps not surprising as many businesses are run by large families. Decisions are generally made from the top down, although employers strive to reach a consensus with managers before policies are implemented. Bahrainis are used to doing business on an international level and are therefore comfortable and welcoming to expats. Women are significantly better placed in the Bahraini business world than in many other Arab countries and there are increasing numbers of highly educated female workers in traditionally male-dominated business environments. Much of Bahrain’s culture is governed by Islamic moral codes so it is worthwhile familiarising yourself with appropriate customs and rules before doing business there.
Managers tend to take an authoritarian role in Bahrain. Employees are not expected to question the decisions that have been reached by senior managers. Although the views of a team will be taken into account, once a decision has been made - it is generally final.
While Bahrainis are open and friendly towards outsiders, business culture is strictly formal. It is important to address counterparts using titles to show respect. Mr or Mrs/Miss can be used for colleagues and Arabic titles such as ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Hajji’ are often used for senior contacts. If in doubt, ask your Bahraini colleagues how they wish to be addressed. Bahrainis expect expats to make the odd mistake and appreciate the gesture of those attempting to follow the formal codes.
Business dealings are based on personal and familial relationships. Outsiders will need to gain the trust of their counterparts before discussing business. A letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance is considered a polite way to break the ice with new business contacts, particularly if they are in a senior position. The best business relationships build gradually through discreet networking. Bahrainis are open and friendly and initial meetings will be focused upon getting to know each other and establishing trust before business is discussed in any meaningful way. Bahrainis have a non-confrontational communication style guided by social convention, so negotiations often take significantly longer than in western countries.
Business attire is strictly formal. While many Bahraini businessmen wear a traditional thobe or dishadasha (a flowing, ankle-length garment), ghutra (head garment) and agal (a thick black cord worn on top of the ghutra), a smart suit, shirt and tie is equally acceptable and expected for western expats. Foreign women should dress conservatively with shoulders, knees and elbows covered at all times in either a smart trouser suit or long skirt and blouse.
Upon meeting your Bahraini colleagues, the usual greeting is “Asalamu alaiykum” (“peace be upon you”) to which you should reply “Wa alaikum as-salam” (“and upon you be peace”) along with a firm handshake. Ensure that you shake with the right hand as the left hand is considered unclean. Bahrainis are tactile and holding hands and kissing between men is common. Before greeting a woman wait for her to extend her hand and if she chooses not to, do not try to shake hands. It is also important that you greet and shake hands with the most senior person first.
Bahrainis have a relaxed attitude towards punctuality and foreigners may find themselves waiting for their business contacts to arrive at a meeting. Lateness is not considered rude in an Arab business setting so try to be patient, even if you have turned up on time. It’s also important not to try and schedule any meetings on Friday, which is a holy day and most businesses will be closed. Be prepared to be flexible as schedules can change without notice.
Meetings often involve many people who are well acquainted or related, so discussions can often stray into friendly banter and chit-chat among those who know each other the most. Don’t expect to get down to business straight away. In general Bahrainis have an open-door policy in meetings which means frequent interruptions. Many expats used to a more structured setting may find Bahraini meetings chaotic and long, however it’s a good idea to just go with the flow in order to build a trusting relationship.
Try to arrive at meetings promptly and greet everyone in the room. Meetings in Bahrain generally include coffee, or kahwa, as a ceremony symbolising friendship and participants should wait silently while everyone is served before getting down to business. Try not to arrange meetings too far in advance or in July and August, when many businesspeople leave the country to escape the searing summer heat.
Bahrain is considered liberal compared to some Arab countries but newcomers should be knowledgeable and respectful of Islamic culture and traditions. Bahrainis are generally laid-back and welcoming but it is best to keep conversation neutral and steer clear of discussing religion or political unrest in the region. Also bear in mind that Arabs are culturally reluctant to refuse anybody anything, with the word ‘no’ considered aggressive. It is best to simply show a discreet lack of commitment to an issue if you wish to show refusal. Drinking alcohol, even in a meeting in a hotel where it can be permitted, would be also be frowned upon.
Arabic is the main language of business in Bahrain. However, English is widely spoken and Bahrainis are happy to conduct meetings in English if foreigners are present. However, it’s good practice to have documents and correspondence translated into Arabic.