The countries of the Middle East have some but not all things in common, such as belief in Islam, use of the Arabic language, connections through the Arab League, historical ties, etc. The different countries form a chain of countries that are linked by culture and religion on the one hand and yet vary greatly in terms of dialect and history on the other, i.e. Turkey and Somalia are linked together by the Muslim religion. With the exception of Turkey and Iran, all other countries are tied together by the Arab league. The Arabic language is a large common denominator between those countries; however, dialects can be so different from each other to a point where a person from Syria can hardly communicate with a person from Algeria.

Geography and Land:

The Middle East and more specifically the so-called MENA (Middle East and North Africa) area is further divided into sub-areas as follows:
The Levant
The Arabian Peninsula, or more recently known as the GCC (Gulf Co-operation
  Council) countries and Yemen
North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and Sudan)
Others (Turkey, Iran, Somalia, Eritrea…)

Most landscape in the Middle East is either occupied by harsh desert conditions or mountains, which has made the people living there toughened from the experience of living with the environment. Lebanon, parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq have mountainous areas while most of the other MENA countries are flat and extremely arid. Those living in the desert traditionally used to move around in a perennial search for water, which resulted in unique eating behaviors and homes. A typical Arab house in the desert is built out of mud and has little furniture. The food is basic with little processing. However, in the mountains of Lebanon, Syria or Turkey one will encounter strong homes with heavy stones and arches that can last for generations. In addition, food in these areas is usually produced during summertime and stored in cellars for use when nature does not allow them to go out and work their snow covered fields.


One of the first questions you will be asked while in the Middle East is “What is your religion?” Religions play a big role in the dynamics of the Middle
Eastern society. They are considered to be one of the main pillars of the society and individuals are stereotyped based on religion.

Religions that exist in the Middle East are as follows:

Sunni Islam
Shia Islam
Christianity, with several branches: Maronite, Chaldean, Assyrian and Coptic,
  which are region-based versions of Christianity
Other minority religions

During Muslim holidays or Ramadan, life is affected by ceremonies and everyone is expected to respect those ceremonies while in public. Office hours and business dynamics change in many Middle Eastern countries during the month of Ramadan. It’s highly recommended that one belongs to a formal religion when in this part of the world as well as avoiding engaging in a religion-based discussion or analysis. Such an interaction can immediately lead to animosity or distance. The best attitude to have is to just be a listener and a learner when it comes to religious conversations.
To illustrate how religions are used to identify and organize society, religions and religious sects in Lebanon have been assigned quotas for job openings, and high level positions in the government are required to be filled by certain religious followers. For example, in Lebanon the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the minister of foreign affairs is usually an Orthodox Christian, etc. In other countries in the Arab world, Christians are not authorized to hold many key positions.


The history of the Middle East has been marked by the ebb and flow of empires for thousands of years going back to the ancient world. History is an extremely important point to every Middle Eastern community, as many communities can point to a time when their ethnicity controlled large areas of land. The history of the Middle Easy can be understood through three aspects: the concept of empire, the growth of Islam, and the influence of colonial powers. History is a key part of understanding the present day conflicts afflicting the region as the same territories are the subject of debate for religious, economic, historical and territorial considerations.
Various peoples have built empires throughout the Middle East and this was understood as the dominant form of government for thousands of years; an incomplete list for historical purposes would include the Assyrian Empire, the Persian Empire, Egyptian empire, Macedonian empire, Arab empire, Mongol empire, and Ottoman empire.

Since the 7th century, Islam became the driving force in the life philosophy of the people and their leaders who converted to Islam, and spreading Islam became a force that expanded the reach of the Middle East and its peoples all the way
from Spain to Indonesia in the present day.
In recent history, colonial influence has introduced new systems of government which in general are considered alien to the culture and unnatural, such as the concept of the nation and democracy. Outsiders to the area such as the European crusaders, Mongol invaders, and colonial powers of the last 100 years have introduced much violence and left the impression on the people of the area that foreign governments are not to be trusted and are there to harm the people.
The present day Middle East is a mixture of very old cultures and very young nations that were organized by European colonial powers after the defeat of the Central Powers which led to the end of World War One and fall of the Ottoman Empire. By knowing which country was subsequently the colonial power in an area of the Middle East after World War One, one can learn much about the culture, social system, military and dynamics of every society. Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were bound by Ottoman rule for over 400 years, and this affected the culture very much, however Lebanon was left under French mandate and Iraq under British mandate after World War One that greatly affected the political structure of both countries. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were occupied by the French for a long time and there is a great amount of French influence in this part of the
MENA as well. American and British energy interests became greatly involved in Saudi Arabia and Iran and major events in the history of these two countries has often had something to do with an American or Brit.
The French and British also left a lasting influence in Egypt and Lebanon, and this is why Lebanon is part of the Francophone countries and French is the genteel language in Egypt. Napoleon’s Army landed in Egypt in the 19th century and his army’s artillery practice targeting the Sphinx caused the Sphinx’s nose deformity. During World War One, the British Army along with an Australian contingent fought the Gallipoli campaign against the Ottomans in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded on both sides. Catholic Missionaries from Europe and more specifically French ones have also had a lasting influence on the education system in Lebanon and throughout the MENA.
In the present day, most countries in the Middle East maintain a great deal of cultural influence and economic ties with western nations on top of a powerful Islamic culture and life constitution, on top of an even longer history of empires. The culture of the Middle East is thus understood only by learning about the history of the region and the forces that have influenced the growth and demise of controlling powers.
Since World War One, colonial countries that have significantly influenced the Middle East are as follows:
Great Britain
The United States
The Soviet Union

Tribes in the Middle East:

Throughout history, tribes have existed in the Middle East. Islamic leaders have attempted to replace the tribal system but were unable to. The tribes have their own cultures and mentalities with associated protocols, and it is always an enlightening experience to learn about how they work. In many cases, individual tribe geographical coverage extends across borders where a single tribe can have influence in one or more countries. Tribal culture can be divided into two sections:
General Tribal Culture
Tribe Specific Culture

Tri-Dimensional Politics:

The political system in the MENA area is as complex as its composition. Unlike western countries, there are three different political systems that rule this part of the world:


Every system has its influence on its population and political dynamics while still acknowledging the presence of the other two systems. Navigating through the three systems is sometimes essential and can be very delicate or sensitive.


The Arabic language, the most widely spoken one throughout the MENA, is a rich language with a large amount of synonyms for each word. The word lion has more than 50 synonyms. Both the richness of the language and emotional attitudes within the culture influence each other.

Major languages spoken in the MENA are:


French is spoken as a second language in some countries that were under French influence, like Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran.
English as a second language is the common denominator among people working, visiting or living the MENA. However, there is a culture behind every person and people express their cultures even though they may be conversing in various languages. For example, in English someone from the Middle East might say “Haste is the devil's work and patience is from God the Merciful.” In order to express
the same idea, a westerner would say “Patience is a virtue.”

Dining Etiquette:

One area of importance in cross cultural awareness is the differences in dining etiquette around the world. Understanding dining etiquette can help people visiting the MENA polish their conduct for the purpose of building better relationships.
Dining etiquette, whether Western style or Arab tribal style involves considering the following points:
The food

Here are some important points to consider while dining in the MENA:

Conversations are animated and loud. “Breaking bread” is an important event in any relationship building.
The head of the family or honored guest is normally served first.
The eldest person has priority in being served food.
If you are enjoying the food, express yourself. It is considered as a compliment.
If invited to a restaurant the host is usually the one that pays, it is common
 that others attempt to do so and it is common and expected that you resist and not accept, if hosting.

Here are some rules to follow if dining within a tribal environment:

Guests are honored with the exclusive parts of the sheep (eyes, tongue, head, etc.) per Arab tradition.
Eat with your right hand only, when no cutlery is used. You may ask for cutlery if this is your custom, it is no longer an offense.
Food is served by grabbing it by hand and putting it on your plate.
Do not be afraid of making a mess, like everyone else.
You will be served more food every time your plate is emptied. This is another expression of Arab generosity.
Complimenting the host on the food is recommended and shows understanding and acceptance of the culture.
  Depending on the situation you may want to combine elements of the two dining etiquette options explained above.

Alcohol Consumption:

Since most of the MENA is majority Muslim, one should not consume alcohol or ask for it. The exception applies when you are interacting with non-Muslims or Muslims who offer you alcohol first. As general advice, stay behind your Muslim host in the amount you are drinking and learn about their own micro-culture when facing such a situation.

Dress Code:

Wearing conservative western dress is the best way to go in most countries. The best way to define it in a few words is to imagine yourself attending a
religious service in your own western country. Exceptions can apply, so learn the micro-culture that you are in and emulate in a conservative way.

Gift Exchange:

Where better than the MENA area to give a gift, where the culture is emotional by nature? People like to express their gratitude, sorrow, love, friendship and other forms of emotion by giving gifts. However, keep in mind:

If you accepted a gift, you have to wait for an opportunity to return the gesture.
It is offending to talk about the monetary value of a gift received or given.
A gift should be wrapped; packaging and look are important.Gifts to avoid giving include:
Perfumes (Too personal)
Roses and flowers for a female
Pork and products containing pork
Personal items such as underwear
Toy dogs or gifts that picture dogs
Images of nude or partially clad women (even in paintings or sculptures with artistic merit)


A man’s role is important in the MENA region and men take pride in their masculinity and who they are. From a cultural point of view, women are meant to raise a family and are considered protected property. A man’s duty is to protect women and provide them with food, shelter and security.
The Koran is a base to understanding male and female social roles in this part of the world. Needless to say, this entire philosophy is drawn from the Koran and a foreigner should refrain from criticizing or attempting to change its roots.
A man living in this part of the world should avoid expressing any feminine appearance like wearing earrings, having long hair, being dressed in an eccentric way with a feminine style, etc. As far as attitude and body language the same applies. A man is expected not to cross his legs while seated. Serving meals, doing laundry, housework and cleaning is usually considered as a female job or a lower-class job for a man, so in either case try to avoid doing it yourself if you are male. If you are a female and a guest, you should also not offer to assist in preparing the meal or cleaning up. Attempting to interfere in this part of the housework may also offend the females who are keeping the home. Make sure you don’t look down on your host for having servants or treating his wife as a servant. Ensure that you respect the social classifications in your host culture.

Comfort Zone:

People in the MENA are emotional. So a person interacting in this part of the world should expect to be touched, and not be upset if spoken to at a close distance. Personal space is small in the MENA and if you feel discomfort in the beginning you may overcome your discomfort over time. A person from the MENA subconsciously feels uncomfortable if the personal space between you is more than the one they are comfortable with. Men embrace or touch one other and hold hands as an expression of friendship. You as a foreigner are not expected to accept touching you are uncomfortable with.
If you feel uncomfortable, you can decline it in a discreet way if you don’t feel comfortable with it or if it is becoming more than an expression of friendship. You should not react too directly in public because the intent may have been misunderstood and your host may lose face which has other consequences.

Nonverbal Communication:

Nonverbal communication is more highlighted in this part of the world than in the West. People are loud when they speak and their voice tonality changes as the content and the emotions of their conversation change. Also, people use their bodies to express themselves and communicate. Recognize voice tonality changes while conversing and learn the different body language gestures that accompany every situation. Universal body language gestures do apply as well and using them would not be a bad idea.

The Concept of Time:

In the Middle East, time is a perception. A meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. in this part of the world will start sometime after 10 a.m. “Inshallah” (by God’s will). Precision is not to the minute and you should not let this reality build negative energy in you. Even in the case that the meeting did begin at 10 a.m., the first part of it will be socializing and no business on the agenda will get discussed anyways. As a rule, a westerner should plan on allotting a little more time than usual. Someone from East Asia or a Latin country will have an easier time dealing with the perception of time.

Bribes and Corruption:

The MENA countries are highly corrupt countries according to research conducted by various international and independent entities. You should expect to be faced with it and try to avoid being an easy target by insisting on not paying as much you were asked for from the first time you were asked to pay. In a business situation, once you accept or pay a bribe with a specific client, then you will always have to include bribery as part of the cost of doing business with that client.
In the retail environment, it is common practice to negotiate, and putting prices on display is not found everywhere. The buyer and seller go back and
forth with offers until a price is mutually agreed upon.

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