Global Executive Coach Barrie Zucal Reveals What Really Happened Between First Lady Michelle Obama and the Saudis

Published on March 10, 2015

The recent visit to Saudi Arabia by President and First Lady Obama following the death of its king became a firestorm of controversy about how should heads of State and their wives should dress when visiting another head of State in their home country.

The recent visit to Saudi Arabia by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama following the death of its king, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, became a firestorm of controversy about how should heads of State and their wives should dress when visiting another head of state in their home country. The First Lady did not wear a headscarf when meeting Saudi leaders.

Most American papers reported that the lack of a head scarf was not hugely significant to the Saudis, as they make allowances for foreigners. The papers acknowledged that Mrs. Obama was dressed appropriately, with her arms covered and wearing loose clothing.

However, CNN reported that the First Lady was “snubbed” by Saudi leaders when some didn’t shake her hand in the reception line and that the look on her face clearly expressed her dismay. Global Executive Coach Barrie Zucal responded to this report by noting, “Muslim men are not supposed to touch women who are not family members. CNN desperately needs ‘cultural intelligence’ so that they can accurately report about what is happening instead of making both the Saudis and Michelle Obama look bad and inflaming the situation.”

Unfortunately, news coverage often feeds the fire of misunderstanding of intercultural happenings and events rather than providing sound information. Leaders in global roles in global organizations often travel to places where they may not be familiar with the culturally-based beliefs, traditions and customs. However, these beliefs, traditions, and customs are the foundation upon which business is conducted.

If American global leaders truly desire to achieve their business goals, they must realize that cultural perceptions can make or break a business deal. If the leader is ignorant or uninformed about the culture of the people of the country in which business is being conducted, the business leaders of that culture may not be eager to work with the American leader and help that leader achieve the desired business objectives.

Zucal adds, “I find this to be common sense. However, many people never give this a thought. They do no due diligence before going to a country where customs and dress are unfamiliar. They show up for business as if they were at home and could simply be themselves. If you do this, you run the big risk of being offensive to those you are meeting with. You also run the risk of making incorrect interpretations of the situation and of the people just as CNN did. Misunderstandings related to a lack of cultural intelligence are responsible for bad feelings and lack of trust between people in business.”

Zucal offers a number of tips that will help American global leaders minimize the likelihood of offending business leaders from other countries and promote trusting relationships that lead to better business opportunities:

Expect people in other countries to be different. Global leaders should find commonality with their international colleagues without falling into the naive assumption that those colleagues share the same values and beliefs.

Be prepared and don’t go in blind. American global leaders should acquire information on the country and culture they are visiting prior to the visit by reviewing the country’s media online or by hiring a coach who knows the culture and can help prepare the global leader for the visit.

Respect the other culture’s customs and traditions. If the American global leader ignores those, it is most likely that the American will be interpreted as either uninformed or arrogant. That may result in the global leader being seen as a poor business risk, or simply treated politely but never invited to the country again, thus losing an important business connection.

Don’t be impatient to get down to work. Because many cultures are much more relationship-oriented than task-oriented, the global leader should be prepared to talk about himself and his family to get know each other better before doing business together. It may also mean that the global leader will be taken to sports events and have meals together and spend time together before sitting down to business.

Use a trusted advisor to help to guide the visit. This persona can inform the global leader in the moment that she needs to consider a cultural context in the conversation. This includes letting go of ego and apologizing if the global leader has made a faux pas or mistake.

Woman need to more concerned over appropriate dress than men. Just as in the Obama-Saudi situation, the First Lady had to be more aware of her dress than did President Obama.

Zucal adds, “You don’t have to like or agree with the cultural norms of countries outside your own, nor do you have to do exactly what they do to be respected. For example, if you are in a Muslim country and everyone stops to pray and you are not Muslim, you don’t have to pray. The bottom line question is, ‘Do you want the business?’ If you do, you must be perceived as respectful to the norms and traditions of your colleagues from other cultures or they will find someone who is.” 

To find out more about Global Executive Coach Barrie Zucal, visit

Company Name: Global Coaches
Contact Person: Barrie Zucal
Phone: 301.274.3898
Country: USA