Expats doing business in Kuwait will find themselves in a tiny Gulf state that is one of the richest countries in the world, thanks to its oil reserves. Kuwait has a very open economy and a well-educated workforce made up predominantly of foreign workers.
The centre of business is the capital, Kuwait City, with large industrial areas located in Shuwaikh, Sabhan and Shuaiba. Home to around 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, business in Kuwait is largely centred on the oil industry. Other major sectors include construction, finance and water desalination. The country is also a major exporter of plant fertilizers but, aside from fishing, there is virtually no agricultural industry.
According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2019, Kuwait was ranked 97th out of 190 countries. The country scored well in the areas of paying taxes (7th) and registering property (69th), but fell short in getting credit (134th) and trading across borders (159th).
The workweek in Kuwait is Sunday to Thursday, with the weekend falling on Friday and Saturday. Business hours are usually between 8.30am and 6pm, with an extended lunch break. Business hours are reduced during the holy month of Ramadan, so expats should not expect to conduct important business during this time. Fridays are considered a day of rest and business meetings should not be arranged on Fridays.
Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken in business.
Business dress is conservative. Men should wear suits. While women are not expected to wear an abaya or hijab, they should cover up as much as possible and avoid wearing close-fitting or revealing clothing.
Gifts are not expected in Kuwaiti business circles, but will be appreciated. In line with Islamic practices, alcohol and pork products should be avoided. Gifts are usually opened in private.
Although women are given greater freedoms than in some of Kuwait’s neighbours, senior positions in business are still dominated by men.
Business culture in Kuwait
Business culture in Kuwait is essentially Arabic. The majority of the local population is Muslim and Islam dominates most facets of life in Kuwait, including business practices. Expats will, therefore, need to familiarise themselves with and show respect for local customs and business etiquette at all times.
Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken in Kuwaiti business circles. Western expats should therefore not struggle to communicate with local associates. Nevertheless, being able to speak some Arabic may be useful and will be appreciated. Official documents and business contracts are written in Arabic. Although it’s possible to have the contract translated into English, should a dispute arise, the Arabic version will be the only one taken into consideration.
A handshake is common for greetings between men. Muslim women will generally not make physical contact with men they do not know; if greeting a woman, rather wait for her to extend her hand first. Titles are important; only use someone’s first name when invited to do so.
Family is the centre of Kuwaiti society and nepotism is common, so it’s not unusual to see many members of the same extended family all working within the same organisation. In line with this, Kuwaitis like to do business with those they know and trust, and networking and taking time to build meaningful relationships with Kuwaiti associates will, therefore, go a long way to conducting successful business in Kuwait. Small talk and getting to know one's associates are expected at the start of a meeting and it would be considered rude to go straight to business.
Titles and seniority are respected in Kuwaiti business culture. Business structures are hierarchical and decisions are made at the top. Those conducting business in Kuwait may need to practice patience to get through meetings with junior associates before finally meeting with the main decision-makers. At other times, the senior decision-makers may be present at a meeting but will have the junior associates conduct the conversation without contributing their thoughts up front. Business decisions can therefore take time, and should not be rushed.
It’s not unusual to have business meetings frequently interrupted by visitors or phone calls. In addition, Muslims pray five times a day, and expats doing business in Kuwait should be aware of prayer times. Meetings and business engagements will need to be arranged around these times. Such disruptions can be a source of frustration for foreign businesspeople in Kuwait, but impatience is frowned upon and tolerance and courtesy should be practised at all times, even if one is frustrated by the process.
Kuwaitis are known to be hospitable and generous hosts but they are also fine negotiators and astute businessmen. Saving face is important to Kuwaitis, who will not necessarily offer an outright no when they cannot do something or are not interested in a business proposition. It is therefore difficult to discern whether a business deal is likely to be successful or not. It’s important for expats to always remain calm and not to show anger or frustration when dealing with Kuwaiti business associates.
Dos and don’ts of business in Kuwait
Do respect Islamic principles and practices. An effort to learn Arabic would also be well received.
Do show respect for Kuwaiti business associates at all times. Never show anger or impatience in business meetings.
Don't rush business negotiations. Always have patience and expect decision-making to be a slow process in Kuwait.
Do take the time to get to know Kuwaiti associates and build meaningful business relationships with them. Kuwaitis are more inclined to do business with those they know and trust.
Do dress conservatively. Women should take particular care with their clothing, which should not be too tight or revealing.
Do have business cards printed in both English and Arabic. Business cards should be given with the right hand.
Don't arrange business meetings on a Friday as this is a day of rest and an important day of prayer for Muslims.
►For more on the work culture in this Gulf emirate, have a read of Working in Kuwait.
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