Saudi Arabian Business Etiquette

مرحبا بكم في السعودية جزيره العرب

(“Welcome to Saudi Arabia!” in Arabic)

Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Islam and home to two Islam holy places – Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia is a distinctly Muslim country, and 90% of the population is Arab. When picturing Saudi Arabia, some may think of a dusty desert country (Saudi Arabia is, after all, the largest country in the world without a river).

But, there’s more to this place than just religion and arid land. Saudi Arabia is also a very ambitious country; in fact, construction is currently under way on a structure called the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with the hope of it breaking the record for world’s tallest building when completed. And, of course, Saudi Arabia is currently the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil – so many nations rely on business relations with the country in order to function.

Before you set off on a business trip to Saudi Arabia, let’s first learn about the dos and don’ts of Saudi Arabian business etiquette.

The Lowdown

  • The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic.
  • The capital of Saudi Arabia is Riyadh.
  • It is extremely important to keep religious rules, restrictions, and customs in mind when visiting the country.
  • Saudi Arabia is a Unitary Islamic Absolute monarchy (their monarch is Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud), and the official name of the country is “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
  • There is great disparity between the status of men and women in Saudi Arabia; for instance, women are not permitted to drive, and it is considered inappropriate to speak about women’s rights (or even inquire about the health of a Saudi’s wife) in the business setting.

Dressing Sharp

  • Men should wear modest, dark business suits to meetings. Avoid wearing gaudy items such as jewelry.
  • Many Saudis wear long, white robes – but avoid wearing native clothing, as this can be seen as offensive.
  • Women should wear baggy, concealing clothing, such as dark pantsuits – the legs, arms, back, and stomach should never be shown in public.
  • For women, scarves must be worn on the head when entering a mosque.
  • A good rule of thumb is to dress well and cover up as much skin as possible.

Make or Break Meetings

  • You will need a Saudi Arabian sponsor when you enter the country – this person will arrange meetings for you.
  • Do not schedule meetings on a Friday – in Muslim culture Friday is the day of rest.
  • People will typically remove shoes when entering an establishment; however, do not expose the bottoms of your feet to other individuals.
  • It is advisable to wait for your Saudi Arabian host to initiate the greeting. Usually, a man will greet another man with a handshake.
  • The customary greeting phrase is “salaam alaykum”.
  • Avoid giving the “thumbs up” gesture, as this is considered rude.
  • It is common for men to walk hand-in-hand as a sign of friendship.
  • Be punctual!

Dining Decorum

  • Usually, business meals will be held in a restaurant.
  • If you are invited to a Saudi Arabian’s home, remember to remove your shoes before entering the home.
  • Meals are normally divided by gender – women will generally not be present. If they are, they will be eating in a separate room.
  • The focus of the meal is on the food, so there should be very little talking while eating.
  • Eat with your right hand (the left is seen as “unclean” in Saudi culture).
  • Accept all beverages and food offered to you, as refusing can be seen as an insult.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • Alcohol and pork are illegal – so keep this in mind!
  • Gifts are not typically exchanged, but are appreciated when given.
  • If you do give a gift, make it modest – perhaps an item from your home company or an item displaying your company logo.
  • You must accept a gift that is offered to you – it is considered rude to refuse.

Down to Business

  • Negotiations, much like normal conversation with Saudi Arabians, will occur at a slow pace.
  • Saudi Arabians prefer to work with people and companies that they trust – so it is important for there to be a “ trust building” phase to the business relationship.
  • As Saudi Arabia is a very bureaucratic society, decisions may take several rounds of approval, which can take several days.
  • Decisions can be easily reversed, so try to get an agreement in writing.
  • Although Saudis like to negotiate, avoid pressuring them to make a deal.
  • Saudis may not come right out and shoot a deal down – a “perhaps” may actually just mean “no.”

Now that you’re well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to Saudi Arabia, don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb!

وداعا

 (“Goodbye!” in Arabic)