Living and Working in the Arab World – Advice from Author Rana Nejem

When in the Arab World

In her new book, When in the Arab World: An Insider’s Guide to Living and Working with Arab Culture, author Rana Nejem helps professionals successfully navigate the Arab world. When in the Arab World provides an insider’s perspective for anyone who wants to live or work in the Arab world. It is a practical map that will help non-Arabs understand the people and demystify the culture of the Arab world – the beliefs, values and social structures that determine the way business is conducted and how things are done. We asked Ms. Nejem some key questions about living and working in the Arab world.

Which skills and traits will give those interested in working in the Middle East an advantage?

Adaptability and an open mind with a “cultural learner” attitude are very valuable assets that will help you when you move to work in a new country or simply a new environment within your own culture.
Patience is another valuable trait that is essential when working in the Middle East – which will help you get accustomed to the difference in pace and how things get done.

What should employees do to prepare for the cultural difference they will experience in the Arab world?

Prepare yourself before you go by learning and reading about the culture of the country you are going to.  Read a bit about its history and the main issues that are on people’s minds and do not rely on western news sources for that information.  And for the first few months you are there, do a lot more listening than talking.  Arabs are very hospitable and welcoming to foreigners and would be more than happy to answer your questions and help you out if you show respect and do not criticize, no matter how much you hear your hosts criticizing their own country and habits.
Do not underestimate the affect of cultural shock – the toll it can take on your health and the strain it can add on your relationships – especially with your partner and family.  Anger and depression are very common emotions that come with culture shock – leading people to idealize their own culture while being extremely critical of the other culture.  The best way to deal with this is to stay active, build new relationships, go out, eat well and maintain a sense of humor and light-hearted attitude.

 What are some major do’s and don’ts for working and living in the Arab world?

Do not fall into the trap of stereotypes.  We don’t deal with cultures we deal with people and each person must be treated and respected as an individual.

Do not jump to quick judgments and conclusions based on how things appear.

Do come with a healthy sense of curiosity and try to look deeper than just the surface.

Do not underestimate the power and pivotal importance of the family, honour and dignity as motivators of behaviour in the Arab culture.

Do not assume that a woman wearing the hijab (head scarf) is oppressed and will see the light once she learns more about western gender equality.

Do not assume that personal freedom is a universal concept.  The Arab culture places more value on identification with one’s place and role in society.

Do take the time to invest in building relationships.  Business is built on relationships.

Do not confine yourself to the expat community; step out of your comfort zone and discover the country, get to know the people and taste the food.

 What countries or cities in the Arab world have the most job opportunities and what professions are most in-demand?

Opportunities for jobs and investments depend on the field or industry and vary from one country to the other.  In most of the Gulf countries there is a lot of construction projects – including infrastructure, roads and large buildings.  There is also demand for financial professionals, marketing and advertising as well as the hospitality industry.

Many people associate the Middle East with conflict and danger. How dangerous is working in the Middle East and what can employees who travel or work there do to feel more secure?
Terrorism knows no borders.  With the exception of what is happening in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – where there are armed conflicts – in recent years, most of the terrorist attacks have been taking place outside the Arab world.  In almost all of the other cities across the Arab world, life is normal and safe.  My advice to you would be to check the travel advice that is issued by your country’s foreign ministry before you travel.

Rana Nejem started out her career as a broadcast journalist with Jordan Television. After working with CNN during the First Gulf War, she moved to the Royal Hashemite Court where she was responsible for His Majesty the late King Hussein’s International Media Department for 2 years. She then moved into the field of communications and public relations leading the public diplomacy and communications work of the British Embassy in Amman for 18 years.  More about her here: