Life in the Arab Cluster—What Does it Mean to Be An Arab?

From a lecture series presented by Professor David Livermore, Ph.D.

What does it mean to be part of the Arab cluster? First of all, to be an Arab is not so much an ethnic heritage as it is a cultural identity. Although it’s similar to what it means to be a North American, that doesn’t entirely capture it either. Let me explain.image of arab family for article on the Arab cluster

Geography of The Arab Cluster

The Arab cluster stretches from Morocco to across North Africa and onto the Persian Gulf. The individuals who are considered part of this cluster descend from the early tribes that occupied the Arabian Peninsula. The cluster includes those countries whose dominant language is Arabic. In fact, the Arabic language is so strongly identified with what it means to be an Arab that speaking Arabic as your first language and being considered an Arab are pretty much synonymous.

Learn more: Culture Matters

Although Iran and Turkey are sometimes affiliated with the countries in this cluster in some regard, they aren’t typically included in this cluster. Their origins and cultural values align better with other clusters. Sixty percent of the earth’s oil reserves are in the Arab cluster, and that resource has had profound influence on what’s occurred in the region, particularly in the last few decades.

The countries in this cluster such as Lebanon, the UAE, Jordan, and Oman represent highly developed cultures and civilizations where modern cities mingle alongside ancient ones. In fact, some of the earliest evidence of civilization is found through archaeological digs in this region. While there are some ancient practices that still shape life across the Arab world it’s a highly modernized place.

Image of the geography of the Arab cluster
Geography of the Arab cluster, highlighted in red. Click to enlarge.

There’s no shortage of sand and desert in the Arab region, but it’s more geographically complex than just that. From the Mediterranean shores of Morocco to the stunning mountains in Oman, it actually has more diversity than we might think. On the whole, the people in the Arab cluster are a vibrant group of people who love family, participate in a wide variety of occupations, love to travel, and have a strong sense of loyalty to their cultural identity.

Learn more: Developing Cultural Intelligence

Family Life in the Arab Cluster

There’s nothing that’s more important to being an Arab than your family. The family is the key social unit to the Arab cluster. We’ve seen this in several of the clusters, but it plays out in an interesting way in the Arab world. This loyalty to family influences all other aspects of an Arab’s life. Arabs honor and respect their families almost at all cost. They also place some value on friendships and spending time with other social acquaintances, but to honor and respect and devote time to one’s family and kin is clearly what’s most important.

To be an Arab is to see your family as being the central concern of your life and existence. Family stands at the heart of society and individuals place huge amounts of trust in their family members. Surely your self-interest is subordinate to what’s best for your family as a whole. In particular, the father is responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of the family and in return the children show complete respect for the father.

Children are often doted on in the Arab cluster. Maintaining good relationships with extended family members is seen as essential. Helping your relatives is far more important than being generous to others. Absolute loyalty to one’s family is vital even when living abroad.

Business Etiquette in the Arab Cluster

One time I was in Abu Dhabi and a potential client invited me to a late dinner. He said he’d pick me up at 8:30 pm if I was agreeable to join him. I was pretty tired and I had to catch an early morning flight and so I was trying to read whether this Arab acquaintance really wanted me there at dinner or was simply trying to be a hospitable host and concerned about me having to eat dinner on my own.

image of two business men meeting in the Arab clusterThis was one of those interesting things you often have to sort through in a cross-cultural setting. As he went on to talk about it, he went on to say that his father, his uncles, and brothers would also be at the dinner. I can’t imagine inviting a business acquaintance to a family gathering unless we knew each other really, really well, but as I started to sort it through I thought it was probably important that I go to this dinner with his family. I went and indeed, it was an extended evening with lots of conversation, food, and several rounds of the hookah pipe being passed around.

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I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. We didn’t really talk about business at all. As my new friend dropped me off, he thanked me very much and confirmed that they were looking forward to working with us and that they would be moving forward with the project we had been discussing that week, which was, by the way, the first time he had confirmed that. Family and business is deeply integrated in the Arab world, something that’s often looked at suspiciously in other places. Sharing a meal with one’s family as a business associate is a way of garnering respect and in part it may be a way of seeing whether or not you can be trusted.

Learn more: Identity—Individualist versus Collectivist

The Arab vs. Western Perspective

Here are just a few of the biggest contrasts then between the Arab and the Western perspective.

Family. As I stated earlier family is the center of everything in the Arab world, whereas in much of the Western world family is important, but an individual’s plans don’t have to be determined entirely by the wishes of one’s family. What about friends? Friends are actually somewhat peripheral to Arabs despite their commitment to social relationships, whereas for Westerners friends are vitally important and may actually be even closer to many Westerners than the extended family is.

Honor and shame. These are ideas that are taken very seriously by Arabs, yet they have little if any significance to Westerners. Many of us as Westerners struggle to even grasp what honor and shame really even means. Time is something that’s very polychronic in the Arab cluster, and of course, you know how this differs with the punctual schedule orientation of most Westerners.

Religion. We’ve said it’s central to everything for most Arabs, at least in their way of thinking, whereas for a Westerner whether or not religion has a strong influence really depends on the individual. In the Arab world, society is predominately oriented around protecting the rights of the family, but for the Westerner, society exists to protect the rights of the individual. What about age and youthfulness? Age and wisdom are highly honored in the Arab world, whereas in the Western world there is less respect for age and youth, and beauty seems to matter more.

It’s pretty difficult to talk about what it means to be an Arab without also talking about Islam, the second largest religion in the world. The question is are the terms Arab and Muslim synonymous? The quick answer is no. In fairness Arabs are overwhelmingly Muslim, but not all of them.

This is the topic we cover in part two of this series on Arab culture – Understanding Arab Culture—Islam and the Five Pillars of Faith. From there, we will discuss a few of the common misconceptions of the Arab world. I hope you will keep reading.

From the lecture series Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are taught by Professor David Livermore, Ph.D.