The giving and receiving of gifts is an important part of professional and personal life in the Middle East.
Closely tied up with the need to maintain relationships and as a way of gaining and giving face, gift giving bonds people together.
Islamic traditions based on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad also encourage people to give one another gifts to maintain harmony and good relations.
Here's some quick-fire tips of gift giving you may find useful prior to visiting the region.
What gifts should you give?
The most frequently given gifts are edibles such as pastries, chocolates, sweets and cookies. Dates are also commonly given as gifts.
If you are visiting the region for business, it is always a good idea to take some gifts with you. People really value food items, crafts and arts from different cultures.
There are some things you should avoid when giving gifts. For one, remember you cannot give any food product which contains pork or pork by-products such as gelatine. Any meat and meat ingredients need to be marked as ‘halal’.
Alcohol of course for most people is a no-no, in many places being illegal or controlled. According to Sharia law, Muslim men cannot wear silk or gold, although this does not apply to women.
If your gift is not opened in front of you straight away, your host may feel shy to do so; encourage and invite them to open it and assure them the gift is only a modest gesture.
It is important to remember that reciprocation is part of gift giving – it is the norm to also give a gift in return of equal value or symbolism. So, if you receive a gift in the region, make sure you repay it while there, on your return home or on your next visit.
Gift giving across sexes
Buying gifts across the sexes, outside of the family, is generally considered too intimate and therefore not done.
If you and male and wanting to give a gift to a woman it is always best to say it is from a wife, girlfriend or mother. This also works the other way around in that woman don’t normally buy for men and would either say a gift was from their husband, or intended for the recipient’s wife. This by-passes any awkwardness.
Include the kids
Once a relationship develops it is also a nice touch to buy small gifts for people’s kids as this helps ingratiate yourself with the family through showing affection and consideration for their children.
Corporate policies on gifts
Now for those of you who may work in companies or organisations with policies that do not allow the giving and receiving of gifts, it is important to try and replace the physical gifts with other gestures of giving – the most well received and common is to take people out to eat. Try and work within the confines of policy but still engage in the process of giving.
Where you must refuse gifts, or in situations where you feel the intention behind the gift is suspect, blaming company policy or your boss helps deflect and avoid any loss of face by you or the giver of the gift.
Gifts are the glue of relationship building
In summary, gifts are important in building trust and nurturing relationships.
Giving gifts that represent your own culture, especially edible ones, are normally enthusiastically accepted.
However, make sure your gift doesn’t cross any lines in terms of taboos.
Need more in-depth information on doing business in the region?
Have a look at our fabulous > Middle East online cultural awareness training course.
It covers everything you need to know about the Arab culture and working with the people.