New York, New York – Reported by Mimi So for Elite Traveler, the private jet lifestyle magazine
I have traveled around the world, but not until I landed in Qatar in September three years ago, did I know what extreme heat was all about. The desert heat was definitely a different experience than the humid Asian climate during their summer months, and I certainly chose a hot time for a visit!
Generally, before I start any business venture in another country, I believe in visiting that country first, and not just once, but several times to learn about the culture and the country. I have visited other regions in the Gulf, yet I feel that I can relate most with Qatar, because of their intimacy of family life, coupled with their robust thirst for the best in quality and innovative design. I was quite taken by the immense landscape from the sea on one side, contrasting with the abundance of tall, wide and shiny contemporary high-rise buildings on the other. The country has been building branches of elite American universities, such as Georgetown, Northwestern and Weill Cornell Medical College, and art museums, such as the I.M. Pei Museum of Islamic Art. They embrace American culture, and as an American woman doing business there, you’ll have a good opportunity to present myself.
One must be patient when building a business, especially in a new place. Beyond nurturing your brand in a new environment, the learning curve is quite different due to the pace at which business is conducted in different countries. The good thing for me, working so many years in the field of multi channels and foreign cultures from the US and Europe to Asia, and now the Gulf region, I can adapt to different standards of time management and definitions of urgency, which vary from country to country. It can be rewarding if you partner with the right group of people and that longevity is part of your business plan. Rushing should be removed from the equation!
There are of course local traditions and etiquette that one must follow, between the single kiss on the cheek in America, the double cheek in Europe, to the constant head bowing in Japan and the no-hug, no-hand shake (maybe sometimes when appropriate) in the Middle East.
In the Middle East, shaking hands—what is appropriate and when—and what to wear, is important to think about. I found that waiting for the man to extend his hand to shake my hand (versus me extending, and not knowing whether he will return the gesture or decline) avoids any unnecessary awkwardness. To my first business meeting in Qatar, I accidentally wore a dress. Thank heavens I had a white cardigan to throw over my knees, since they were showing slightly. So, if you do plan to wear a skirt or dress, make sure it’s covering your knees. Also, while seated, it would be more polite, and best, not to cross your legs, but to turn to the side. Generally, I love wearing my slacks anyway. YES, in Qatar, you can say I had moments of confusion and lots of apologies!
I enjoyed myself tremendously during a grand wedding—a two-day day affair of henna evenings for the bride, where they paint beautiful henna on your hands, and bestow wishes upon the bride, her close relatives and friends. In an Arabian tent where all the black-cloaked women unveiled themselves to each other, gorgeous sequin colors and jewels dripping from neck to toe blinded me! For the first time in my life, I think I knew what it must be like to be a man! There was a group of 100 women, all celebrating the joys of the young bride. It all blew me away—the Arabian music, the décor, the enormous stacks of trays with endless food and the customary attire one wears to a wedding, with the finishing touches of jewelry … of course that’s my favorite part! In this part of the world, they love their diamonds and fine jewelry … lucky for me!
I was fortunate to be welcomed into a lovely family. Nayla, whose heart is huge, invited me into her home to share a scrumptious home-cooked meal, with her beautiful children and husband. We connected like sisters. Quickly, I started tasting the most amazing dishes I’ve ever tried in my life! Conversations around the dinner table were fascinating and very informative about their culture, government, educational system and their children’s point of view about America. I could have stayed there for a month easily, but I have my own family to tend to, speaking of children and education. But, I always believe in leaving some things undiscovered, so I can return again to learn more about a new home I find mesmerizing.
My business trip wrapped up by going out to the desert one morning. I did not realize that Friday is part of the weekend in Qatar, so of course, with businesses closed and nothing for me to do, going out to the sand dunes was the most logical place for me to go kick around some sand. I was an adventurous child, and feel bad when I think back on the days of havoc I caused my parents. Needless to say, I decided this was a good time to start learning to ride a camel, in case one day I would need to know how to ride one. I can confirm today that it is slightly different than riding a horse!