Business etiquette, language and culture
Although Bahrain is the most liberal of the GCC states and is tolerant of all faiths, many Bahrainis are conservative. Islam is the national culture and, together with local traditions, customs, laws and religions, should be respected. You should dress conservatively in public places, particularly religious sites. Be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan and Shia religious festivals.
Official holidays in Bahrain are generally the same as those observed in most Muslim countries, including: Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) and the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.
In 2020, the holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on 24th April and finish on 23rd May. See the UK Government’s guidance on travelling during Ramadan at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travelling-during-ramadan. Bahrainis observe some additional religious anniversaries that may not be celebrated in other Gulf countries.
Arabic is the official language of Bahrain, although English is widely spoken throughout the country and it is common for written correspondence to be in English. However, Arabic is often preferred within government. Persian is also fairly common, particularly in the home, and Urdu, Hindi and Philippine Tagalog are also spoken among expatriate communities.
It helps to have a working knowledge of Arabic. If not, you can consider hiring a professional interpreter for your meetings. Your interpreter is one of your key assets, so needs to be chosen carefully.
It is recommended that you use a professional interpreter for negotiations and avoid using electronic translation for your correspondence. It is a good idea for initial written approaches to Bahraini companies to be in Arabic as well as English, and your literature and business cards should be translated too – it is recommended that you have one side of your business card printed in Arabic.
Lists of local interpreters and translators can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bahrain-list-of-translators-and-interpreters, or from DIT at the British Embassy Manama.
Western-style clothing is common, and dress rules for women are more relaxed than in some other parts of the region. However, in more conservative and rural areas women still wear a hijab and a long cloak (abayah). When in Bahrain you should dress modestly in public – women should wear clothes that cover their knees and shoulders, such as a long sleeved blouse, a long skirt/dress or trousers, and men can wear traditional suit trousers, although it may be too warm for a jacket as well.
Bahrainis are particularly hospitable and friendly, and will greet you with enthusiasm. Handshakes are the norm, although some women may not be comfortable with this – men should wait to see if a woman extends her hand first.
The customary greeting is “As-salaam alaykum," (peace be upon you) to which the reply is "Wa alaykum as-salaam,” (and upon you be peace). When entering a meeting, general introductions will begin with a handshake. You should greet each of your Bahraini counterparts individually.
When you are in Bahrain, especially on business, traditional Bahraini coffee may be offered to you in offices and at Arabs’ homes. Coffee is an important part of social life and offering coffee as a gesture of welcome is symbolic of hospitality. Bahraini coffee is often flavoured with cardamom or saffron.
Hours of business
The working week traditionally starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. Friday and Saturday are the official days of rest, although in some cases, people – including many non-government offices – may work on Saturday.
You will need introductions to develop your business in this market. You must take time to get to know your contacts through face-to-face meetings.
As in other countries, more than anything it is important to target the right person in your contacts, the decision-maker. It is also preferable to establish new business contacts via an introduction by mutual contact, exhibitions, networking receptions or through the Embassy in the form of an Overseas Market Introduction Service (OMIS).
Through an OMIS, the Embassy in Bahrain can provide a programme-arranging service, whereby your company can be introduced to the most appropriate contacts and an appointment confirmed on your behalf.
Face-to-face meetings are preferred as phone calls or emails are sometimes seen as impersonal. Appointments should be made no more than two weeks in advance and confirmed a few days before the actual meeting as priorities may change. It is useful to allocate extra time in case the meeting should go on longer or start later than anticipated. Morning and early evenings are the most usual times for meetings, but make sure you avoid prayer times when scheduling.
The pace of life is slower in the Gulf, and punctuality is not a particularly high priority. However, you should try to be punctual to create a good impression.
During meetings you should:
exchange business cards immediately after introductions, presenting with both hands or with the right
do not offer anything with your left hand, nor receive anything with your left hand
keep cards on the table, do not put them away immediately
It is advised that you consult a lawyer prior to signing an agreement in Bahrain.
Bahrainis prefer to do business with people they know and trust. Personal contact with potential and existing partners/clients and regular visits to Bahrain are of the utmost importance and it is natural for a business relationship to be built over time.
Remember, relationships are most important. You should show long-term commitment to Bahrain and your Bahraini contacts – keep in touch between contracts or projects.
[Source – DIT Trade and Investment guide: Bahrain, gov.uk]
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