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Muslim, Western biz challenges: Plenty of common ground

Whether you are in Saudi Arabia or Chicago, executives and entrepreneurs face some of the same challenges when it comes to keeping audiences engaged.
By Bill Connor
FORTUNE -- As I huddled with a Saudi business contact in a conference room in Madinah, just a few miles from the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad last month, I was struck by how exotic and yet how familiar it all felt. My friend, a banker, wore the traditional kafiyeh and thobe to my blue suit. Outside, the temperature approached 112 degrees Fahrenheit. On the breakfast table: fried lamb liver, cardamom-scented coffee, and camel's milk.

But my friend spoke of exactly the same goals, hopes, and anxieties that I discuss every day with executives from D.C. to Dallas. How can I make more time for my family while growing my business? How do I stay ahead of the competition? How can I communicate more effectively with employees, customers, investors, and the media? And so, after years of working with clients from all over, I once again realized that in the world of business at least, we are much more alike than we think.

My conversation with Abdullah took place at the Madinah Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (MILE), an executive-education program created by the Saudi government and corporate backers with help from McKinsey. Every day, over the course of each two-week program, a different marquee-name B-school professor from the U.S. or Europe delivers an eight-hour program to a group of 30 or so senior executives from the Middle East and Asia. The goal: to give executives from the Arab and Muslim worlds relevant business education without having to send them to Philadelphia or London. I was there to conduct media training and presentation skills coaching in small sessions. And I saw first-hand that public speaking challenges know no cultural bounds.