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What Cultural Differences can an American Expat Find When Moving to The Middle East?


The Middle East is as culturally diverse as the USA, which makes it difficult to talk about Middle Eastern culture as something homogenous.

What we will do, however, is to pick a few cultural differences which are shared across most of the Middle East and which are more likely to trip North Americans up when working in the region.

If you are to build positive and productive intercultural relationships across the Middle East, then understanding the likely cultural differences and being able to manage them will help you make the best impression possible.

Although this outline contains valuable tips, for optimum preparation, we suggest you enrol in our great eLearning online Middle East cultural training course at the end of the blog, which equips relocating expatriates with the tools and insights needed to navigate Middle Eastern culture successfully.

Honor Culture

The Middle East is what’s typically known as a ‘face’ or ‘honor’ culture which means that a great deal of importance is placed on the esteem in which one is held.

In fact, when it comes to cultural awareness and building positive intercultural relationships, the concept of honor and honour cultures, is one of the most important areas that you need to understand. When Americans slip up in the Middle East and offend their counterparts, it’s often because they have lacked an understanding of this part of the culture.

In American culture, people tend to ‘say things as they are’. They are not afraid to challenge each other as this is generally viewed as honest, transparent and the best way of reaching decisions, resolving issues or simply getting things done.

In this respect, for example, it’s generally accepted that a subordinate might challenge their Manager in American culture without any negative consequences. In fact, it’s even likely that the Manager will view this behaviour as demonstrating initiative, independence or passion.

It doesn’t work like this in the Middle East, however, and Americans who employ these tactics might find that they cause offence and damage their relationships. Publicly challenging someone may well be perceived as shaming someone in the Middle East and cause them to feel a loss of honor. Since group mentality is also important in Middle Eastern culture, then it’s very possible that the offence caused may extend to all members of the wider group.

When in the Middle East therefore, deal with grievances or complaints in private and directly with the individual concerned. Try to use language that presents an issue as a shared concern rather than a source of blame.

You should also make the effort to raise the honor of your counterparts where possible as this will be appreciated and may well strengthen your intercultural relationships. Assuming it's sincere, you may, for example, choose to praise someone in front of their seniors, or, compliment someone on their clothing or achievements.

It’s also important that you consider your own honor and present yourself well by wearing smart clean clothes and staying in a nice hotel. Failing to do so may well result in you being perceived as slovenly and not someone to be trusted.


Middle Eastern culture tends to be very hierarchical, which is reflected in both social and business settings.

On the whole, people from the Middle East tend to ‘know their place’ and will show great reverence to those older or more senior to them. When entering a room, for example, they are likely to greet those who are higher in the hierarchy first and show considerable respect to the opinions and requests of their superiors.

In multicultural expatriate hubs, such as the UAE, you are also likely to see an ethnic hierarchy based on someone’s country of origin. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Filipinos, for example, are typically employed in manual labour and receive far less privilege and good treatment than the professional workers from India. Westerners in turn, tend to be at the top of the expatriate ethnic hierarchy.

Like the concept of honor, hierarchy is a cultural difference that can trip Americans up as it doesn’t have the same importance in America as it does in the Middle East. Although in America, hierarchy plays a role, greater value is placed on democracy which means that people feel entitled to have their opinions heard regardless of their position in the hierarchy.

It’s important therefore, to understand your place in the hierarchy and accord extra deference to those who are more senior. Failing to do so may well impact the honor of those more senior to you and cause you to be perceived badly.


Evolving from the tribal mentality, the role of the group continues to be another important part of Middle Eastern culture.

In American culture, the opposite is true and great value is placed on individualism and the ability to perform independently.

If you are working as part of a Middle Eastern team or managing a Middle Eastern team then be prepared for people to call on you far more frequently and to engage you in processes that you may otherwise have been outside of your remit.

You should also make the effort to interact with everyone within your group and to take an interest in them as people. Building relationships with your counterparts and being incorporated into the ‘group’ is an important way to get things done and to build trust.

It’s important when you’re in the Middle East, that you bear the group in mind as the need to reach a consensus with one’s group (and subsequently from the final decision maker), can well slow things down. As such, patience is an incredibly important attribute.


This outline is intended to equip you with a high-level understanding only and to give you the best chance of building positive intercultural relationships with your Middle Eastern counterparts.

Whether you take part in our eLearning Middle Eastern culture training course, or, utilise alternative online resources, you will ensure you make the best impression possible and get the most out of your assignment.

We wish you all the best for your expatriate assignment to the Middle East!

Cultural Training Program on the Middle East

Our intercultural training services include both webinars on the Middle East and our online course, which you can watch below.

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

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