Swedish values in the Middle East

I have been working in Dubai, UAE, for the last 3 months and I have never learned as much about Swedish culture and values as I’m doing here. Although I’m born in Lebanon, with Lebanese parents, I think I have been undergoing a minor cultural chock…

Hierarchy in the Middle East is very important and you need to be extremely careful in who you address and how you do it. Although I believe I am a humble person (at least in Swedish standards), I was surprised yesterday when my current Syrian manager pointed out to me that I shouldn’t have written the email the way I did to the CTO in our customer organization. “Why, what did I write wrong?” I asked, a bit offended. “Well, you asked him to give you information for creating the invitation letter”. Just to give you the background: I and my manager will take a local customer from Bahrain for a visit to our headquarters in Sweden in the beginning of January and the CTO wrote to me (as the responsible country sales manager) to ask if I could send him an invitation letter for the visa application. So I wrote back, in a very kind way, to ask him if he could please provide me with the required passport information etc for the invitation letter. Apparently this was offending because in this way I am treating him like an admin staff, I should instead (according to my Middle Eastern manager), ask him for a name of an assistance to coordinate with. I didn’t know what to reply so I said ok, I didn’t think about it that way. At least I learned something…

Communication here in the Middle East is not always verbal. While talking, you always need to analyze if your counterpart actually means something else or if there is any underlying expectation that he (yes, 99% of the time it’s a “he”) can’t say because of pride, hierarchy level or any other reason. Studies show that the brain is the part of the human body that consumes carbohydrates the most so when working and focusing a lot, you need to refill often. No wonder I have increased my consumption of carbohydrates here while at the same time actually loosing weight; I am analyzing discussion and emails all the time! Talk about “multi-thinking” if that word exists. I pointed out to my manager last week that maybe we are actually over-analyzing things? Maybe we shouldn’t assume that our customers want something without actually finding out by asking directly? He totally agreed (which does not happen very often!) and I felt some relief in that. I just need to figure out a smart way of asking without offending the customer or showing that we haven’t understood what they haven’t said…

Another thing is the difference of the definition of luxury. So we’re taking our customers to Sweden and I asked for the nicest hotels and restaurant to be booked; we want of course to show them how important they are to us! I was disappointed to find out that wherever I lodge them or whatever restaurant I take them to, it will not be comparable to what they have here… I don’t know if it is the value of “Lagom” that kicks in and sets limits to what level we can take luxury in Sweden or if it is actually a difference of definition. Could it be that “minimalism” and “bare bone elegance” is considered luxurious in Sweden, while in the Middle East luxury is about abundance, golden plated floors, extreme cleanness and staff that are so service minded that they clean your hands when you have finish eating? Well, whatever the reason is, I need to explain to our dear visitors that in Sweden, we consider minimalism as something really beautiful!

Despite all these challenges, it is really instructive and interesting to be working in this region. We have a lot to learn from the Middle Eastern culture in terms of service mindedness, openness and loyalty to family members just to mention a few. I will bring this knowledge with me and I am sure it will serve me in many circumstances in my life as well as on a personal level.

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