Cultural Awareness in International Facilities Management

Why is cultural awareness important?

In mature markets, a one-size-fits-all approach to Facilities Management can lead to frustrations and inefficiencies.  In developing markets with a different cultural context, it’s often a deal breaker.  This article explores some common cultural barriers in a Middle Eastern context, and how to overcome them.

Studies show that the degree to which companies flourish in a foreign market is influenced by their cultural awareness and ability to communicate with its people.  Facilities Management is business’s fastest-growing professional discipline worldwide.  Therefore, the ability for providers to adapt to different cultures can determine the success or failure of expansion plans.

Indeed, there is perhaps no better arena for observing culture in action than International Facilities Management.  For one, cultures reveal themselves in situations where economic survival is important because, arguably, it is in these situations that cultural resources are most required.  Therefore, it is vital to have an understanding of culture in board room negotiations.

For two, the components of True Facilities Management (FM) operations -people, process and even place- are all shaped by deeply-held cultural attitudes and values toward work, hierarchy, trust, and communication.  Without an appreciation of the framework which determines the way staff, suppliers and other stakeholders behave, it is difficult to be sure if complex requirements and schedules are mutually understood.

In short, cultural awareness is essential to both client communication and solutions.

middle east landscape, cityscape, building and spice market

Cultural Awareness in Middle Eastern FM

True FM is founded on the belief that an optimal solution isn’t something you shoehorn a client into, but rather something which emerges from fruitful partnership.  Fruitful international partnership, in turn, hinges on cultural awareness.

Nowhere is this truer than with KEY’s Saudi Arabian contracts.  As Jim Yorston, KEY’s COO, puts it:

“The rich culture of Saudi Arabia has been shaped by its Islamic heritage, its historical role as an ancient trade centre, and its Bedouin traditions. People see, interpret and evaluate things in different ways, and this must be respected. What may be considered an appropriate behaviour in one culture is frequently inappropriate in another”

KEY’s Saudi team acknowledge the language barrier to be the biggest challenge they face.  However, they also highlight four other examples of how cultural ignorance or disregard can give rise to relationship problems.

Time and scheduling.  The Arab people take a more relaxed approach to both, and inflexibility runs a real risk of offending partners, suppliers and clients.

Friendship is more prominent than the West, and Arabs will not do business with anyone they don’t like or trust.  We aim to build genuine friendship with our Arab colleagues, taking in an interest in the things that are important to them outside the workplace.  Most meetings start with a catch-up on health, news and family.

Disagreement.  Losing face means more in the Middle East than in the West.  We take care not to disagree with or contradict someone directly, but rather express differences of opinion in more indirect and subtle ways (e.g. “in similar situations I have experienced in the past, it has often been preferable to…“).

Body Language.  Pointing and the thumbs up sign are considered rude by many Arab countries.  So too is crossing your legs when sitting or displaying the sole of your shoe to someone.  The Arab people also have a different concept of personal space.  Compared with usual Western behaviour, people will often stand or sit much closer to you, touch you more, and may even take your hand when leading you somewhere.  This can seem unusual and uncomfortable from a Western viewpoint at first.

Cultural awareness helps avoid FM no-no's such as a thumbs-up in the Middle East

Strategies for Cultural Assimilation

As a company providing International Facilities Management services in Saudi Arabia (as well as the other countries in the Middle East where we operate), it is vital to quickly understand the culture.  Only by this can you ensure you have a workforce adequately prepared to deliver.

In order to avoid cultural blunders and ensure seamless assimilation, all of KEY’s employees undertake a rigorous induction upon arrival in Saudi Arabia.  This focuses on three core aspects:

RESPECT!  Above all KEY cultivates RESPECT for cultural differences, and a willingness to listen and learn.

Cultural Training
, including:

  • An introduction to the history and politics and of Saudi Arabia
  • Information about Saudi Arabian people and Saudi Arabian society
  • Major cities and regional diversity in Saudi Arabia
  • Practical information on living and working in Saudi Arabia
  • Attitudes towards women and foreigners
  • Managing culture shock
  • Saudi Arabian social and business etiquette: greetings, gift giving, invitations, privacy

Basic Language Training
.  English is not the primary language for most Saudi service delivery staff.  Ordinarily, they are migrant workers from other countries.  Without a grasp of the basics there is the risk of misunderstandings with clients, customers and work instructions, with potentially adverse consequences.
Jim illustrates this with a recent example from KEY’s prestige CAF train cleaning and maintenance contract:
“I asked one of the cleaners to bring me some water as I wanted to show him the best way to fill the tanks before the train departed.  Ten minutes later he appeared with a trolley full of bottled water, smiled, and said ‘you ask for water to fill tank sir!’ What I’d meant was for him to bring me the hosepipe attached to the mains outlet.  If I’d used his method the train would still be waiting to depart!”
CAF Train Cleaning in Saudi Arabia


In this article, we have argued that cultural awareness is more important to International Facilities Management than any other business.  We highlighted this through reference to the cultural differences experienced by our Saudi Arabian team.  Particularly, these included potential clashes of business attitudes to friendship, body language, punctuality and disagreement.  We also showed how KEY’s approach resolve these challenges through cultural and language training for our employees.  Above all, we stressed the importance of cultivating respect and openness regarding cultural differences.

For more KEY insights follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

International Facilities Management Solution for CAF’s Riyadh to Dammam Train Service

Below is video presentation about KEY’s International Facilities Management solution for CAF Saudi Arabia’s core Riyadh to Dammam train service. This is the second in our ‘True International Facilities Management’ themed posts for July ’17.

The presentation was made by Jim Yorston, KEY’s Chief Operations Officer, at the anniversary of our partnership with CAF.  You can also read the case study for the contract here.  Alternatively, check out our prestigious new contract for CAF’s premium high-speed fleet from Riyadh (King Khalid International Airport) to Al Qassim.

If you’re interested in KEY’s work and views, we welcome you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.