Interviewing in the Middle East

Interviews in the Middle East show definite differences from those in other regions. But what should aspiring management consultants pay attention to in this case so as not to be thrown off course?

In this article, the expert Rushabh explains exactly what distinguishes interviewers in the Middle East and what you can expect in the interview. He also explains exactly how you can stand out with counter questions.

 

Expert Article by Rushabh
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How is recruiting for the Middle East different?

So you have heard great things about Dubai or have even seen Doha and Riyadh spring up in the news lately for the FIFA World Cup and for building mind-blowing megacities.

You also learned that English is the only language required here; these cities offer a very comfortable style of living and that there are no taxes. Learning that Middle East Consulting is booming, you applied to the Middle East offices, and now you have received the interview invite. You must be thinking, what’s next? Just the regular case and fit prep, right?

Well…there are some things you need to be aware of. Read on.

How are the interviewing styles different?

Interviewers in the Middle East tend to simulate what dealing with a Middle Eastern client is like.

Thus, often you may face an interviewer who

  • Interrupts you
  • Asks you to hurry up / slow down
  • Pretends to be utterly disinterested in what you have to say (looking at phone, hair, anything but you!)
  • Discounts your past work experience / keeps disagreeing with you

This may seem to be intimidating at first, but know that this is just part of their ‘act’ most of the time, and they want to stress test you and observe how you handle it.

Let me tell you what this looks like specifically for Fit and Case questions in the following sections.

How Do I Handle Difficult Interviewing Styles?

There are a few things you need to keep in mind:

3.1 Be Prepared to Be Interrupted

“Tell me about something new you learned at work.”

     “Sure, back in 2018, I was working on this Oil and Gas project for the first time when I did not have any experience in this industry…-“

“So, what did you learn about Oil and Gas?”

     “Well, I learned about the production process, how to report energy assets on the books…-“

“So, how DO you report energy assets on the books.”

     “Umm, companies typically cannot capitalize research expenses but can capitalize exploration expenses…-“

“Okay, understood”

You get the idea. Some interviewers, especially at the partner round, are impatient. They want to know what EXACTLY you have done, and they want to know it quickly. They have done hundreds of interviews and have heard similar answers a bunch of times.

The best approach in this scenario is:

  • Never lose your cool – No matter how many times you are interrupted, you must not lose your cool. Continue behaving professionally and calmly to answer the question you are being asked.
  • Do not rush – Say fewer words, but say them clearly and slowly. Running your answer gives away nervousness, and you will tend to give less thought-out answers.
  • Be extremely structured but not robotic – Speak with emotion, but use bullet points. “I learned about 1) The accounting for Oil and Gas, 2) The production process for Oil and Gas 3) The distribution process for Oil and Gas. Do you want me to elaborate on any/all these points?”
  • Be concise, but be ready to elaborate – self-explanatory :)

 

3.2 Edit on the Go to Adjust Your Speed

“Tell me about yourself ... quickly”. Quickly? This throws you off. This is the one answer that you have been preparing for hours and are confident about your material – starting with your background, experience, values, hobbies, and motivation to apply – how on earth am I supposed to answer this quickly?

Candidates often make a grave mistake here – they try to squeeze in their entire answer in 30 seconds. As a result, they sound rushed and nervous, and they tend to ramble.

The best advice is Edit, On The Go. For some answers (like Tell me about yourself), be prepared with a shorter version beforehand. For others, where you are not really prepared with a shorter version, you need to edit on the go – pick up on the body language of the interviewer and cut down on areas that you think do to connect well with them. Minimize the number of words you speak, but do not babble!

Try to match the speed of your interviewer – if your interviewer is a native English speaker, match their fluency/vocabulary/speed. Being a slow speaker will frustrate them. On the other hand, if your interviewer is a non-native English speaker, babbling will be perceived as ‘nervousness’ instead of being seen as having a high command over the language. Practicing your mocks with a variety of peers is a great way to be able to bring this versatility to your communication.

 

3.3 Dealing With a Distracted Interviewer

You may come across an interviewer who just does not seem to care about what you are talking about. Either they are checking their email, or phone, fixing their hair, smoking a cigarette (yes!) anything except you!

This could happen for a variety of reasons:

  1. They have had a rough day – they don’t have much energy left to conduct an interview, and they want to get this over with as soon as possible
  2. This is their interviewing style – they want to stress test you and see how you react!
  3. This is their personality – maybe this is just who they are! People can have distracted personalities!
  4. They have made up their mind that they are not going to hire you – maybe they don’t like the way you answered a question, they don’t like the way you communicate, it could be one of many things. But their opinion is that they don’t think that you are cut out for the job.

Now, for reasons 1-3 – it’s not your fault. For a reason 4, it is.

But of course, you do not know why they are acting distracted, and thus your plan of action should be as follows:

  • Assume that it’s not you, it’s them – you must continue to be as professional as possible and continue with the interview with as much enthusiasm as possible. In no circumstance should you lose hope!
  • Keep them engaged – if you sense that your interviewer is drifting off, try being more concise in your points; ask them more questions; improve body language; and adjust your communication style.

For example:

“Tell me a time when you dealt with a difficult situation.”

     “Sure, can I tell you about a time when I handled a difficult conflict in my team?”

Instead of going straight into your answer, it always helps to get their buy-in into your story before you begin. Keeping them involved in your conversation will make them pay attention.

Ask them if they have any concerns – in the absolute worst case, where you see that the interviewer has stopped listening to what you have to say, maybe you could politely ask them if they had any concerns in your previous response that you could help alleviate. If they point out that you were incorrect in a previous answer, maybe spend a minute to amicably find a middle ground before moving on.

 

3.4 Handling Disagreement

An interviewer can strongly disagree with you for two reasons:

  1. To stress-test you and see how you react
  2. They have a strong reason to believe that you are incorrect, and you should take a hint to correct the course

Handling disagreement differs a lot between the fit part of the interview and the case part:

Handling disagreement in the Fit part of the interview

In the fit part, you are entitled to share your stories, and it is quite rare for an interviewer to disagree with YOUR story/experience. But it does happen. Examples:

Scenario 1:

“Tell me about your weaknesses.”

     “Sure, I am very detailed oriented and sometimes miss the big picture.”

“I don’t think that’s a weakness.”

Scenario 2:

     “I worked in xxx in their Strategy arm.”

“I don’t think xxx does good strategy work.”

Scenario 3:

“Why did you study at xxx university? It is not very well known!”

Now obviously, in these scenarios, there is nothing wrong with what you have said. They are clearly stress-testing you.

You need to practice with peers or a coach and learn how you handle yourself and politely push back while standing your ground.

This skill is helpful to have in the real world, where clients are constantly challenging your work.

 

Handling disagreement in the Case part of the interview

Now, in the case part of the interview, if the interviewer is challenging your quantitative result or acumen, then it’s definitely worth considering that they might hint that you have made a mistake.

Thus, during the case part of the interview, you should only disagree with the interviewer and hold your ground IF you are convinced that you are right, and you should be able to justify your opinion.

There is a fine line between “holding your ground” and “being un-coachable”. Be polite, re-think/re-check your position, and if you’re wrong then admit it and justify. If you’re right, then politely push back and explain your position clearly.

What are unstructured cases and how do I prepare for them?

“The Government of Saudi Arabia has approached us. They have a plot of land 10 sq. km. wide. What can we do with it?”

What!

Where is the prompt?

“This is the prompt."

Well, in the Middle East, be prepared to receive such unstructured and vague cases by the best of s. The main reason behind this is that, quite often, these are the kinds of problems they are asked by the actual client too!

You must be thinking, i) What are they testing here and ii) How can I prepare for this kind of question? Well, here you go:

 

What are they testing here?

  1. Your ability to operate with limited information: They want to test if you can ask the right questions
  2. Your ability to think big: Many projects in the Middle East are greenfield projects where consultants need to have the ability to start from 0, test viability, see what sticks, and iterate.
  3. Your ability to think on your feet: Clients oftentimes ask these kinds of questions to real-life consultants to test their hypothesis before/during presenting to a Ministry.
     

How can I prepare?

  • Be extremely familiar with all the projects announced and/or happening in the region over the last 2 years, as well as the 5-year / 10-year plans of the major governments in the region.
  • NEOM, Qiddiyah, Al Ula are some of the giga-projects happening in the region. Even within NEOM, there are huge subprojects like OXAGON, TROJENA, THE LINE, etc. Be familiar with these projects.
  • Be aware of Vision 2030 of KSA, Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, and the net-zero plans of each country.
  • This gives you ammunition for i) Small talk (in case they are working on one of these projects) ii) Gives you an idea of what kind of case to expect iii) Asking questions to the interviewer (see Section 5 below)
  • For market sizing: i) Be aware of the population of all the GCC countries and the major Middle Eastern countries; ii) Have a rough idea of the GDP/Budget (avoid blunders of confusing millions with billions or trillion, e.g., you simply cannot say that the GDP of Saudi is $1 Billion. That is off by a factor of 1000); iii) Know the rough demographic split (e.g., most middle eastern countries have a large ex-pat population and a large youth population)

Do mocks with coaches from the Middle East:

  • Coaches like myself have done tons of real-life interviews in the Middle East. We can give you mocks similar to questions that we have been asked in real life.
  • Based on these questions, you should build a repertoire of master structures, which you can edit on the go during actual interviews.
     

Prepare for market sizing. A lot of market-sizing:

  • Market-sizing questions are very popular in the Middle East because they test i) Quantitative skills ii) Business acumen, and iii) the Ability to structure a problem logically.
  • Start asking yourself market-sizing questions in your everyday life “I wonder how many customers this restaurant can serve in a year?”, “I wonder what the potential tourist revenue of Dubai is every year?”, “What could be the total impact of FIFA World Cup on the economy of Doha?”
  • These may sound easy in your head. But only when you pen down a real structure – will you be able to see the logical faults in some of your steps.
  • I have spent hours coming up with structures of different ‘big picture’ market-sizing problems that allow me to recognize patterns. For example, identifying problems where I can categorize the population based on ‘Age’ vs. ‘Size of Household’; doing the market size of a certain section of the population (e.g., the household market only) and then dividing by a certain denominator to compute the full market (e.g., dividing the household market by 60% to consider the commercial market as well in the total).

Practice brainstorming

“Tell me 10 ways to respond to our competition. Now. Without taking any time.”

     “Umm – Can I have 30 seconds?”

This is tough. And they know that. But the only way to get around this is to have enough prior preparation and prior knowledge about the region and the industry of your interviewer that will allow you to give a half-decent answer. Practice! Practice! Practice!

Questions for the interviewer: How to leave a lasting impression

“Do you have any questions for me?” This is by far one of the most under prepared aspect of an interview. Candidates spend hours and hours on fit prep, case mocks, industry knowledge, quant – yet they leave the last impression that they leave on an interviewer to chance.

This is the part of the interview where you can truly drive the conversation and choose to ask questions where you can also add value. For example: If you are interviewing with a Healthcare partner, and you did not get a chance earlier in the interview to mention that you know a lot about the Healthcare industry, then try this:

“I have been reading a lot about the effects that the pandemic had on healthcare policymaking. I was curious to know your opinion, since you work a lot with healthcare clients – do you think there will be a material change in the way in which governments plan for the future.”

No matter what the answer is, you will always have a sentence or two to add to what the interviewer says with some more specifics. You can also gauge if the interviewer is really passionate about this topic, and if so, ask follow-up questions!

I once spoke to an interviewer for over 10 minutes on just one question topic, but kept asking follow-up questions as we would in a natural conversation!

This serves two purposes:

  1. The interviewer learns that you have done your homework on this topic
  2. The interviewer subconsciously infers that you are a pleasant person to talk to, and thus the ‘airport test’ is passed.

Other examples of questions that you can use to your advantage:

  • “After working so many years at this consulting firm, what is the one thing that you’re truly proud of about the firm?” This will give you some room to talk a bit more about your answer to Why this firm? Or it will give you a chance to connect with a similar experience at your previous workplace.
     
  • “How has your experience been transitioning from a Consultant to an Engagement Manager?” This gives them the impression that you are not just thinking about working for two years and quitting, but also have the intention to grow within the firm.

You get the idea! Thus, make sure you think very clearly about the questions you intend to ask your interviewer and plan the supplementary comments or thoughts you would potentially add to the responses you get.

Summary

In summary, you need to keep a few things in mind while interviewing for the Middle East – especially if you have never worked in the region or have never worked with demanding clients. It is not rocket science, but it is just a lot of work. The more you prepare in advance, the less you leave things to chance.

By preparing for interviews in the Middle East, you are preparing for what is to come in real-life consulting – balancing the needs of demanding clients while keeping your cool and managing your resources’ needs, being ready when you are put on the spot in front of the Ministry or having a preliminary opinion on how to respond to the competitor’s latest move.

7. About the Author

Rushabh

BCG Expert | #1 in the Middle East | 80+ Mocks Delivered

  • Professional Experience: BCG, KPMG, PwC
  • Languages: English, Hindi
  • Location: United Arab Emirates

Rushabh has gained experience at various consultancies such as KPMG, PwC and BCG and has conducted more than 80 interviews on and outside Prepounge in recent years. He interviewed with BCG, Stategy&, Delta Partners, Roland Berger, Kearney, LEK Consulting, Monitor Deloitte, and so many more firms across the Middle East and Europe. The five-star ranked expert gained experience with the various recruitment processes and interviewing styles. Furthermore, he specializes in the unstructured cases typical of the Middle East.

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