Negotiating Agreements in the Middle East

Fred Carr, Carr & Venner ADR

abu-dhabi-2Serving as legal counsel in various capacities in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates between 2008 and 2012, negotiating agreements between private, governmental and NGO organizations addressing policy, security, safety, environmental stewardship and economic development were a major component of my day to day responsibilities.

The U.A.E. is comprised of approximately 85% expatriates. I was therefore called upon to work with professionals from all over the world and learned very quickly that “horse-trading” varies greatly from culture to culture and one must adapt accordingly, and immediately, or lose that “first impression” opportunity.

As in any negotiation, it’s imperative that one “know one’s audience.” While there is considerable diversity between individuals within any cultural group, to work within broadly defined ‘generalizations’ (as opposed to stereotypes) is both more prudent and far more effective. Likewise, an objective perspective of how others view us, is invaluable. As attorneys, we are often perceived as being intelligent, effective communicators, and objective. However, attorneys are also viewed as being arrogant, opinionated and argumentative. While the former characteristics are generally considered “positive” and the latter “negative” in American culture, having strong opinions and sharing them in a persuasive and impassioned manner can be viewed as a “positive” trait in many other cultures, particularly within Arab cultures! It is therefore critical that we self-reflect and “show up” in a manner that is culturally acceptable to our audience, without being patronizing.

A second critical element of successful negotiations in the M.E. is to know whether your counterpart is from a “rules-driven” or “relationship-driven” culture. “Rules-driven” cultures tend to believe that once a procedure or set of rules is in place, then and only then will objectives be achieved. What behavior is and is not acceptable is clearly outlined in these cultures and failure to follow the rules is not acceptable. Americans generally, and U.S. lawyers in particular, are driven by rules in most every aspect of our lives and professions. While acceptable behavior in Rule-driven cultures is rather narrow, it enjoys the benefits of being comparatively clear, orderly and predictable. Written contracts reign supreme in these cultures.

“Relationship-driven” cultures tend to believe that trusting relationships are far more important than rules. Once a trusting relationship is in place, there is no need for so many rules! Such cultures invest significant amounts of time developing relationships before engaging in any type of agreement or commitment. The benefits associated with relationship driven cultures include flexibility, reciprocity and longevity. Middle Eastern cultures illustrate this paradigm in the extreme. Written contracts do not enjoy a great deal of import in these cultures and may merely provide a starting point for future negotiations!

About the author:

Attorney-Mediator Fred Carr has nearly 25 years of legal experience. His mediation skills benefit from more than four years in the Middle East where he served as a Principal, with Good Harbor Consulting, LLC, a Washington D.C. based international consultancy. He is a member of BASF’s Mediation Services panel; learn more at