Business in the Arab Gulf Culture

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Judith Hornok—or “The Decoder” as some people know her—is the founder and CEO of the innovation company Hornok & Partner. There, she helps organizations improve business relationships in the Gulf states by assisting them in understanding the Arab psyche. Hornok’s interest in learning about people has led her to study what she coined to be the “special codes” of people across the globe.

Hornok defines a decoder as “a person who invests a lot of time in studying people, their special codes: their speech, body language, gesture, or even being silent.” She continues on to establish that “all of these codes are the fast track to the emotional and intuitive state of your counterpart.” The counterpart being the other party in a business relationship. In light of her extensive work as a decoder, Hornok suggests that establishing chemistry in interactions, value of family, and commitment to business relationships are three important cultural codes to address when conducting business in the Arab culture.


To illustrate the importance of chemistry and connection between business partners in the Arab culture, Hornok shared a story of two American businessmen meeting with their Arab counterpart to secure a business interaction. One, having experience with the culture, chatted with the Arab while the other sat nervously as the clock ticked away, knowing they had only 15 minutes to conduct the meeting. To the shock and surprise of the men, particularly the one unfamiliar with Arab culture, the Arab man stood up, apologized for needing to leave, and told them exactly what to do in order to ensure a signed contract from his party. 

Hornok explains that in this situation, “the Arab knew exactly why the business men had come; he just wanted to know if he wanted to do business with them—if he liked them as people.” Many individuals of the Arab culture can be quickly dissuaded from a business deal if good chemistry is not fostered by their counterpart. Hornok holds that the best way to do so is by engaging in “small talk” during business meetings as demonstrated in the above story.


While many individuals from the United States begin initial conversations by asking surface level questions, such as what the other does for work or what sports teams the other follows, the traditional Arab style of communication includes asking about the other person’s family. Hornok was surprised to experience this early in her career when asked about her father while meeting one Arab businessman for the first time. Elaborating on the Arab cultural emphasis on family, Hornok says, “the more value you put on the family, the more value for business with them.” Individuals seeking to deal in the Arab culture “must understand how important family is for this part of the world.”


With the proper chemistry and family values established, the next important signal to send to Arab counterparts is a high level of commitment. “This is exactly what the Arab people want to know about you—the commitment,” says Hornok. “Only then will you do business together and close deals.” Hornok offers investing time and money in training Arab employees as an example of demonstrating commitment. By doing so, companies can show that they are committed to engaging in business with their Arab counterparts by supporting the country and people.


While many values hold importance globally, some cultures place greater emphasis on different areas than others. When conducting business with individuals of a different culture, it is especially important to understand and address the values or “special codes” of those counterparts. This will help secure better business relationships, just as Hornok demonstrates in her analysis of the Arab culture in particular. Chemistry, family, and commitment are important cultural codes to consider when conducting business in the Arab Gulf culture.

To learn more about conducting business in the Arab Gulf culture and Hornok’s research on decoding cultural codes, listen to her internationalHub podcast here, or visit her website here.

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