The values of Arab culture are unique and often mysterious to Westerners. Even the word Arab can be unclear because people presume Arabs are a single race. However, the term Arab refers to culture and language rather than lineage. Just as Americans are of mixed race and ethnic backgrounds, so are Arabs.
The Arab Population
World Bank data for 2014 estimated the population of the Arab world at 384.3 million. Arabs are located in 22 principle countries situated in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, Iran and Turkey, which many people consider Arab nations, are not part of this group because they speak Farsi or Turkish.
If you plan to travel to this region for leisure or business, be aware of the values and beliefs that differ from those in Western countries.
When trying to understand Arabic values you need to take into account the effect of Islam on Arabian society. Although there are other religious groups, the majority religion in the area is Islam, and it plays a central role in influencing culture. The Koran is its principle text, which Muslims believe god revealed to the Prophet Mohammed through the Angel Gabriel. It is one of the foundations of Islamic law. Islamic law is also known as Sharia, and it has become part of the constitutions and secular laws of most countries. Some places, such as Saudi Arabia use Sharia law for all areas of jurisprudence.
- Establishment of justice
- Educating the individual
- Upholding public and private morality
- Preventing hardship on individuals and society
- Preventing oppression
Each Arab country interprets Islamic law differently; some follow it more strictly than others. Countries which adhere to extreme interpretations of Sharia, such as stoning, capital punishment and cutting off the hands of thieves, tend to make headlines in the West. This can cause the misconception that these actions are the norm.
Things to Consider When Visiting
- Muslims pray five times a day, and all other obligations and responsibilities are scheduled around prayer times.
- Friday noonday prayers render it the least likely time for you to conduct business. It is the beginning of a 'weekend' for most people and you'll generally find people with their families.
- When entering mosques, women are expected to wear modest clothing and cover their heads.
- People remove their shoes before going into mosques.
- Unless a mosque is a tourist attraction, men and women typically use separate areas to pray, read and study.
- During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, so business hours are affected.
Family is an integral aspect of Arab culture. Families maintain tribal and clan connections in many countries and loyalties are strong, hence the expression, "I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my cousins against the stranger."
People know and speak proudly of their genealogy. The extended family celebrates together on feast days, and during Ramadan, they will have breakfast at each other's houses.
In the Arab world, parents play conventional roles in family life.
In most Arab countries, men play the patriarchal role. A man is expected to take care of his family financially and feels shame if he is incapable of providing for his wife and children. Again, this is a value from the Koran which designates men as protectors of women. However, due to changes in society and education, wives frequently help support the family. Sometimes this undermines the role of the man as the breadwinner. Although the father has the final say, parents discuss and plan together before making decisions.
Many women in Arabic countries maintain a traditional role and stay at home. A woman's job is to raise the children, help educate them and manage the house. Western society conceives them as oppressed and unequal to men, but it is important to keep in mind that:
- Just because a woman appears to be a housewife it does not mean she is not involved in business matters.
- Traditions are changing and women are working from the home and outside. However, they are discreet about their careers.
In her book, Women, Power and the Academy: From Rhetoric to Reality, Mary-Louise Kearney, states that there is a misconception about the status and roles of Arab females, pointing out that throughout Islamic history many women have reached high positions in government.
Children imitate the example given by their parents. Boys learn to be 'men' from an early age, to protect the women of the family and take on responsibilities outside the house. Daughters are taught to run the house. They receive praise for feminine traits. Children do not leave home until they marry. Often one son will live at home after marriage, to care for his parents' needs.
Respect for old people is another value that can be traced to the Koran. In Sūrat al-Isrāʼ, god commands that the elderly are esteemed, treated dutifully, and spoken to gently and politely. Consequently, they are consulted on all matters, even though their advice may not be followed. There is still a tradition of family business, so fathers and sons sit together to discuss everything related to work and the household. The healthcare support system is weak, so young women rely on their mothers and grandmothers during childbirth and in the childcare that follows.
Education is valued. People are proud of their qualifications. When you meet parents they will name drop about the schools and colleges their children attend, boasting about their accomplishments and expecting you to show you are impressed.
Whenever possible the poor send their children to school, struggling to keep them in education and scrimping to pay for private tuition in the hope that they will attain school certificates or even university degrees. You should realize that for these families reading and writing is an achievement. In Literacy and Adult Education in the Arab World, the findings of the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education Hamburg concluded that there was a deep commitment to adult education in the region.
In the Arab world, privacy is another cultural value which stems back to the Koran. People do not discuss their concerns outside the family. If a person talks disparagingly about a relative or speaks of private affairs to an outsider, he is frowned upon.
Privacy in the Home
Privacy extends into the way homes are built. There are parts designated to visitors and areas where guests are never invited to venture. Often the house's construction allows female guests to meet wives and daughters in their apartments. Men will entertain friends in the salon, or in their own section of the house. If the home is small, they time meetings so that visitors do not have to see family members with whom they have no business. Alternatively, appointments are arranged outside.
Everyone has heard of Arabic generosity and hospitality. When traveling anywhere in the Arab world it is a matter of honor that you receive a warm welcome. To maintain good relations be aware of the correct behavior.
- Stand when someone enters the room.
- Respect the different living areas in the home, when an Arab says, 'my home is your home' it is only an expression.
- Don't shake hands with an Arab woman unless she gives you her hand first.
- Don't speak to Arab women before you are introduced.
- Don't ask about an Arab's wife or daughters.
- Take a gift.
When invited to eat a meal with Arabs you will find differences in etiquette.
- You will always be offered snacks; decline the first offer but then accept.
- It is impolite to refuse a beverage.
- Always use the right hand when eating, drinking, passing or accepting food and drink.
- Avoid politics, religion, and personal relationships between men and women as topics of conversation.
- Do not overstay your welcome. Leave soon after eating.
In the Arab world, most people are conservative and modesty is a positive trait spoken about in the Koran.
While dress codes and customs differ from country to country. In some countries, both genders wear national dress and women are required to wear hijab or a veil, and robes which hide the outline of their bodies. In others, there is little difference between their clothes and western-style clothing. The most important areas to cover for the sake of modesty are the top of the shoulders and arms. However, modern women wear short sleeves and skirts, and tight jeans.
Basic dress tips to follow when traveling to the Arabic world are:
- Men should wear a suit and tie for business meetings.
- Casual dress is unacceptable and impolite for many social occasions. Err on the side of formality.
- Shorts and sleeveless tops should only be worn at the beach. They are not acceptable for sightseeing in cities or religious sites.
- Clothes should be clean and pressed.
- While Muslim dress is unnecessary, check the local customs and rules before traveling to ensure that you do not give offense.
Interaction Between Cultures
Whether for business or pleasure meeting people from the Arab world is an enriching experience. Knowing more about cultural values and how to behave in a foreign land is helpful and reassuring, not only do you realize the differences between their culture and your own, but you also understand the similarities and appreciate how much people of different nations have in common.