If you‘re doing business in North Africa, remember the continent is a collection of individual countries, each with its own customs and culture. So it pays to do your homework.
Photos: Privat Lange, Privat Kröning, Alamy Stock ZUMA Press Inc, iStockphoto: Lera Danilova /Theresa Tibbetts/ Liudmyla Klymenko, Universität Bremen, iStockphoto: James Alexander
Karsten Lange, who handled North African business for a Bremen shipping company for many years and was a frequent visitor to the region, sums up the basic requirements for doing business there. „First of all, you have to build up a relationship of trust with your trading partner and maintain it. This doesn‘t happen overnight and certainly not just with emails, phone calls and video conferences.“ You have to show up in person on site regularly and spend as much time there as possible. „Arabs are usually quite distant at first and take longer to get to know you than westerners,“ says Lange.
For business travellers from Europe, this means being patient and holding back early on. Politics and religion are not suitable for the initial stages of the relationship. „Football is almost always a good topic to start with. It brings people together and is very popular in North Africa,“ says Lange. Volker Kröning, Honorary Consul of Morocco, agrees. „A conversation about the African Champions League is possibly a good introduction. Since 2017, the finals have all been North African teams.“ At the same time, he recommends studying the history and culture of each country in advance. „Differences matter as much as similarities. Those who are familiar with both are best equipped to shape business relationships productively,“ says Kröning.
„You have the watches. We have the time“
Both these North Africa experts also point out that the clocks in the Maghreb tick differently than in Europe (Arab proverb: „You have the watches. We have the time“). There are often more important things for people there than keeping to exact time slots. Statements like „He‘ll be back in an hour“ or „Come back tomorrow“ shouldn‘t be taken at face value. Kröning points out that punctuality is expected of German companies, „but it‘s clearly a one-way street, because it is rarely kept to by the locals in return.“ Lange advises against scheduling several appointments in quick succession. „Even the first appointment can cause delays that will make subsequent appointments run late,“ says the ex-shipowner manager. Against this background, he also recommends cultural sensitivity. Meetings in the region could well be interrupted several times a day due to prayers. Scheduling meetings during Ramadan may not be advisable, as the hosts might have limited energy due to fasting.
Once the meeting has begun, be respectful, pay attention to non-verbal signals and read between the lines. „Politeness and form are more stringent there than in Germany. You need to act diplomatically and respectfully,“ says Kröning. „You will never hear an unequivocal ‚No‘ in the Maghreb, because it‘s considered rude,“ says Lange. In the event of a rejection, the people in charge usually talk around things or don‘t even bring up the issue at all. Everything that is not answered with a clear ‚Yes‘ is considered rejected. „No matter how the issue develops in the course of the conversation, they are always careful to ensure that none of those involved lose face,“ says Kröning.
Trust is inherited
The two Bremeners also agree that it takes a fair amount of improvisational talent to master the unique challenges on the ground, which are not limited to unclear time slots, unfamiliar conversation structures or indirectly communicated refusals. „But even this talent is only of limited help if it‘s not backed up by the appropriate expertise. The right mix of both is crucial,“ says Lange. Job titles on business cards are important. „In North Africa, the exchange of business cards is not as ceremonial as it is in Asia, but here too titles and hierarchies are important. If your title is less senior than managing director, you can only make a very limited difference in the Maghreb,“ says Lange. The beauty of North Africa, however, is that once trust has been acquired there, it is automatically passed on to the next generation, even in the case of business partners. „Due to strong Arab family structures, this trust bonus is virtually hereditary. It‘s one of the nice things about doing business there.“ (bre)
Honorary Consul Volker Kröning (2nd from left) exchanged views with Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco (2nd from right) at the SIAM agricultural fair in Meknès in 2012.