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

From the lecture series: Customs of the World — Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are

What does it mean to be part of the Arab cluster? 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 its full meaning.

By David Livermore, Ph.D., Cultural Intelligence Center
(Image: Reephotoeasy/Shutterstock)

Geography of The Arab Cluster

The Arab cluster stretches from Morocco 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. 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 is synonymous.

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 supplies are in the Arab cluster, and that resource has had a profound influence on what’s occurred in the region, particularly in the last few decades.

This is a transcript from the video series Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. Watch it now, Wondrium.

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. Some of the earliest evidence of civilization is found through archaeological digs in this region. While some ancient practices still shape life across the Arab world, it’s a highly modernized place.

Arab World political map, also called Arab nation, consists of twenty-two arabic-speaking countries of the Arab League. All nations in green color, plus Western Sahara and Palestine. English labeling
Geography of the Arab cluster, highlighted in green. Click to enlarge. (Image: Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock)

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 has more diversity than on the first appearance. 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 about how virtually every aspect of our lives is shaped by culture

Family Life in the Arab Cluster

There’s nothing more important to being an Arab than your family: they are the key social unit to the Arab cluster. This can be seen in several other clusters, but it plays out interestingly 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 costs. They also place some value on friendships and spending time with other social acquaintances, but to honor, respect, and devote time to one’s family and kin is clearly what’s most important.

Arabic happy family lifestyle moments at home
The family is the key social unit to the Arab cluster. (Image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

To be an Arab is to see your family as the central concern of your life and existence. The family stands at the heart of society and individuals place huge amounts of trust in their family members. A person’s self-interest is subordinate to what’s best for their 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.

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Business Etiquette in the Arab Cluster

Family and business are 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.

Arabic businessman giving an handshake to his business partner
(Image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

Once while I was in Abu Dhabi, a potential client invited me to a late dinner if I was agreeable to join him. I was 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.

This was one of those social situations you have to sort through in a cross-cultural setting. As he went on to talk about it, he explained his father, uncles, and brothers would also be at the dinner. In American culture, it’s difficult to imagine inviting a business acquaintance to a family gathering unless the parties knew each other well well. 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.

I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. We didn’t discuss 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. It was the first time he had confirmed that.

Learn more about working with people from each background

The Arab vs. Western Perspective

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

Family. As we read earlier, family and business are intertwined in the cultures of the Arab world. Sharing a meal with one’s family as a business associate garners respect and may be a way of seeing whether you are trustworthy. Family is the center of everything in the Arab world; comparatively, 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. In the sphere of friendships, friends are somewhat peripheral to Arabs despite their commitment to social relationships. For Westerners, friends are vitally important and may actually be even closer to many Westerners than the extended family is.

Honor and shame. These two concepts 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 even mean. 

Time. Time is very polychronic in the Arab cluster, and this differs from the punctual schedule orientation of most Westerners.

Religion. Religion is 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 depends on the individual. In the Arab world, society is 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 appears to matter more.

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

The Arab cluster is richly complex in its history, culture, geography, and people. Taking a brief look at this vast region can help demystify misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Common Questions About the Arab Cluster

Q: What kind of clothes do Arabs wear?

Arab clothing varies according to the following criteria: 1) male or female, 2) age and location, 3) urban or rural, and, of course, 4) social class. Women have few rules but are generally seen wearing a headdress while men are almost always in a white robe called a thobe and loose, long shorts.

Q: What race are Arabs?

The Arab race is mostly Mediterranean Semitics. In terms of physical anthropology, they are Arabid, a subtype of the Caucasoid or Arabsoid.

Q: What do Arabs eat?

Arabs have their own style of cooking called Mediterranean with subgenres, of course, and tend to eat a lot of grains, dried meats and fruits, dates, nuts, and cooked dishes of lamb, cow, and mutton.

Q: Are all Arabs Muslim?

Not all Arabs are Muslim. It is thought that around 93% of Arabs adhere to some version of Islam while the rest make up a percentage of Christians and presumably a tiny smattering of non-Muslim/non-Christians.

This article was updated on June 19, 2020

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