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Cooperation With Distributors in Arabic-Speaking Countries

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International Leadership

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In Arabic-speaking countries, Swiss exporters often work with independent distributors to sell their products. The market potential of these countries is too small to justify wholly owned subsidiaries. The leadership of independent distribution partners also selling other manufacturers’ products is, therefore, a key success factor for Swiss exporters. However, the peculiarities of the Arab business world remain alien to many Swiss managers. This chapter aims to determine the challenges involved in cooperating with distributors in Arabic-speaking countries, and how these challenges can be dealt with. Based on a survey of Swiss exporters, the three phases of cooperation with distributors are investigated: selection, motivation, and long-term cooperation. Although all three phases are important, the results show that long-term cooperation is the main challenge. Obstacles are that distributors fail to keep promises, receive negative feedback from customers, or do not carry out activities in the expected quality. Personal relationships are considered a key success factor for succesful long-term cooperation. However, according to the survey, cultural differences remain a source of misunderstandings and mistakes. These are less about religious regulations than about a different understanding of time, a lack of commitment, and the different values associated with personal relationships. The authors conclude that the motives for action in the Arab world differ from those in Switzerland and are thus often misinterpreted by Swiss managers.

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  1. 1.

    The League of Arab States has 22 members: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. (

  2. 2.

    The German term for dignity (Würde), for example, can only be equated with the Arabic word karāmah in some respects. For Muslims, blasphemy (kufr) is the ultimate loss of dignity (Schroeder and Bani-Sadr 2017).

  3. 3.

    A common indicator of corruption is the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International. The index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. Thus, the index represents perceived corruption. It is not an objectively comparable measure of the acts of corruption actually taking place. Assumed corruption, however, is also influenced by the “integrity of the media” (Philp 2006), i.e. by how transparently corruption can be reported. An objective comparison is therefore problematic. At the time of writing, the United Arab Emirates performed very well in the corruption index: 21st place—two places ahead of the USA. Switzerland ranked fourth.

  4. 4.

    The transcription of Arabic is a problem when texts use data from both Standard Arabic and various dialects. The transcription used in this paper mainly follows the one adopted by Fischer and Jastrow in their “Handbuch der arabischen Dialekte” (1980). Regarding Standard Arabic, we use a simplified transcription which does not include case endings. Regarding Arabic proper names, we use the versions the authors themselves use.

  5. 5.

    There is an Arabic proverb (quoted in Egyptian dialect): xīr el-ʼumūr el-wasaṭ, meaning: The best of all things is moderation (moderation is the best policy).

  6. 6.

    The Standard Arabic word katif means shoulder.

  7. 7.

    The Standard Arabic word maʻrifa may denote knowledge, acquaintance, or friend.

  8. 8.

    A famous Arabic proverb sums up how to move from the inner to the outer circle: ʼanā wa ʼaxī ʻalā ʼibn ʻammī wa ʼanā wa ʼaxī wa ʼibn ʻammī ʻalā al-ġarīb: I will side with my brother against my cousin, and I will side with my brother and my cousin against a stranger. Meaning: Blood is thicker than water.

  9. 9.

    The honor of the father and mother is regulated in the Qur’an (sura 4:36; 17:23). The traditions and sayings of the Islamic prophet (Hadith) contain numerous episodes that underline the importance of family ties. For example, it is said that a Bedouin came to Muhammad and asked: “Tell me what will bring me near to the Garden and keep me far from the Fire.” Muhammad replied, “Worship Allah and do not associate anything with Him, perform the prayer, pay zakat [a form of alms-giving], and maintain ties of kinship” (Hadith; al-ʼadab al-mufrad 49).

  10. 10.

    While the Swiss constitution guarantees the right to marriage and the family (art. 14), Arab states go one step further: article 9 of the Saudi Arabian constitution states: “The family is the kernel of Saudi society” (Arzaqī et al. 2011). Article 10 of the Egyptian constitution of 2014 defines: “Family is the basis of society and is based on religion, morality, and patriotism” (Egyptian constitution 2014).

  11. 11.

    It is strange for Central Europeans that Arabs usually appear in larger groups. Conversely, however, Arabs would ask what is wrong with a person when they are traveling alone.

  12. 12.

    There is a joke in English about this: “Name a sentence an Arab has never said before. Answer: “I’ll mind my own business and won’t ask any personal questions.”

  13. 13.

    The Arabic verb for “big/get older” is kabira. From these so-called root letters, the word kabīr is derived, which can mean big, meaningful, powerful, or old. The root expresses the meaning of being/becoming great, of gaining importance (Wehr and Kropfitsch 2020).

  14. 14.

    Khadīja bint Khuwaylid, Muhammad’s first wife, was the heiress of a caravansery and a trade business, and Muhammad himself was also a trader (Brill, Vol. 4).

  15. 15.

    The proverb aṣ-ṣabr jamīl can also be found as part of a Qur’anic verse: “So be patient, [Prophet], as befits you” (sura: 70:5). According to tradition, the Islamic prophet Muhammad himself said: “None is ever given anything better and more far-reaching than patience” (Sunan an-Nasa’i 2588). The following sentence is ascribed to the second Islamic caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab: “The most excellent kind of patience is the compulsion to be patient” (ʼafḍal aṣ-ṣabr at-ṭasabbur).

  16. 16.

    In earlier times, the month of fasting was called šahr aṣ-ṣabr (literally: “month of patience”). Fasting was called ṣabr because it means self-restraint from food and beverage as well as sexual intercourse (Lane 1984).

  17. 17.

    During live interviews on the news channel Al Arabiya Al Hadath, for example, interviewees sometimes get so loud that the viewer has to turn down the volume. This could indicate anger or even aggression but is usually nothing more than a rhetorical device used to add drama to the speech. This is underlined by the interviewers rarely responding to it themselves and continuing the interview normally. In everyday life, it can also happen that men pound the table.

  18. 18.

    Tourists who ask for directions in Egypt usually get a positive answer, are explained the way, or are even taken by the hand and guided a bit. You frequently end up somewhere completely different and realize that the person actually did not know the way. From a Central European point of view, one would prefer a clear “No, I don’t know”—but for Arabs, it is good manners to give help when asked for it, and to give a positive answer. The Arab helper has the feeling that he has helped—and not that he has deliberately misled someone.

  19. 19.

    It takes much proper instinct to master such situations. Instead of rejecting a request immediately, you should listen carefully and express your concerns, but ultimately agree that you will try to help or get the matter done. Later, one should express one’s regret and, if possible, offer an alternative. From a Central European point of view, this is inefficient and may give the other party false hopes. This is why great disappointments sometimes arise when an Arab promises help to a Central European.

  20. 20.

    Sāmān Abdul Majīd, who describes himself as the personal translator of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, gives an example of how Arab and Western cultures can misunderstand negotiating gestures and lines. In his book “Sanawāt Saddam” (“The Saddam Years”, Sāmān Abdul Majīd 2007), he describes the scene when in 1993, the then US President Bill Clinton sent a friend to Baghdad on a secret mission to indicate to the dictator that he is ready for a fresh start and open to talks. Saddam Hussein was not impressed by this and gave no indications for his part but rather tiraded about the great importance of Iraq and its immortal civilization. Clinton interpreted this as a rejection and left the matter alone. Sāmān Abdul Majīd raises the question of why Saddam reacted in this way and suspects that he was afraid of “selling” himself to the Americans. Persistent bartering was a matter of honor for him. On the other hand, he was unaware that his reaction was a powerful and almost humiliating gesture after a US president had sent a personal friend.

    While Saddam awaited new and concrete American signals to negotiate, Clinton saw the matter as settled. Saddam, on the other hand, was surprised that Clinton no longer sent a new envoy. In Clinton’s opinion, nothing more was to be expected from the Iraqi president.

  21. 21.

    Tourists know this situation: you want to pay a taxi driver in Cairo, ask about the price, and the driver says he doesn’t want any money. If you were to say thank you now and just get out, the driver’s mood would change quickly. It is a tradition in Egypt that the seller refuses the money three times for the service and the buyer insists three times on paying.


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Ammann, P., Drißner, G. (2022). Cooperation With Distributors in Arabic-Speaking Countries. In: Stolz, I., Oldenziel Scherrer, S. (eds) International Leadership. uniscope. Publikationen der SGO Stiftung. Springer Gabler, Wiesbaden.

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