By Saleh al Shaibany — My friend, the bank manager, invited me for a chat in his office during official hours. I obliged and was welcomed by a loud greeting that made customers turn their heads to look at the small cubicle. Since we had not seen each other for more than a couple of years, he had a lot to tell me. A few sentences were followed by thundering laughter that shook the money bags in the vault. A European couple was among the customers in the queue and through the glass wall, I could see their disapproval.
In Europe, bank managers are reserved creatures whose words are carefully chosen before they are spoken. They represent institutions that are a vital part of the economy. Here in Oman, bank managers have different priorities. It is the human element that is important to them.
Pick any annual report from any bank and read the last few paragraphs. European CEOs would say they are loyal to shareholders while Arab managers would conclude the report by pledging their support to customers.
This is the fundamental difference between us and the rest of the world. While I was still in the manager’s office, a customer walked and needless to say, he did not have an appointment. Five minutes later, somebody else walked in. My friend welcomed him with the same zealousness as he had welcomed the first one. He listened to them and solved their problems by giving instructions to his staff. He treated them as if he knew them all his life.
He knows that trade competition is won on how you receive the customers. In Oman, bank managers’ offices are an open house. It is reminiscent of the old days when transactions were concluded in the tents next to a brewing coffee pot. If you put a good word in the ear of a trader, then your friend gets to do business. Guarantees are still given by word-of-mouth and the paperwork just concludes the formalities.
In the world of ‘who you know’‚ and not ‘what you know,’ business deals are still clinched in the same old way.
There are still tents but not pitched in the desert sands but in the turfs of five star hotels. Just the surrounding is different and that is the only sign of modern times. Through the eternal sheesha, executives puff away the aromatic smoke served by pretty young women.
There, in the slight intoxication of the tobacco and live music from the hotel singer, they settle deals. But it works out well since the element of trust is bound by the brotherhood of men.
For most Omanis, time stands still when it comes to business relations. Shareholders and auditors turn a blind eye on how transactions are conducted but they know you don’t change a winning formula that has worked for centuries.
I stayed in the manager’s office for more than 40 minutes. About half a dozen customers walked in with grave concerns but walked out with happy faces. Sometimes he would say ‘no’ to a request but only to make a concession for something else. He would always even out to win their loyalty. Long-term European residents understand this but newcomers find it chaotic.
How could you run a business without appointments, preparation or solid guarantees? They don’t understand that the deals are done a long time before one puts pen on paper. There is nothing chaotic about a word of assurance that was spoken in the courtyard of a Friday prayer mosque.
Yes, Omani executives conclude businesses in the office but start it elsewhere. Nothing has changed and it never will.