Working in the Middle East / Saudi Arabia

Business Etiquette

Date Posted: February 7, 2016      

It is essential for expatriates working in Saudi Arabia to understand the etiquette and practices involved in Saudi business culture and the personal way in which business is conducted. Many Saudi Arabian executives and government officials will have studied and/or worked abroad so are familiar with Western culture and business behavior; however it is appropriate that, whilst in their country, to still show respect for Saudi customs.

Many Saudi excutives have an impressive history of business experience, and experience with the West (in business or education) and a good command of the English language. They prepare carefully for meetings and have a good knowledge of all relevant details, relying more heavily on memory than on papers and notes. As the Arab people are very hospitable they will sometimes go to great lengths to make guests feel welcome and comfortable. Foreign business executives can expect to be served first and will be ushered first through doorways. If an invitation is extended to a Saudi colleague for a meal or coffee, it is customary for the person who issued the invitation to pick up the bill. Some Saudis will decline an offer at least once, out of politeness.

As a generalization, Arab society operates from what might – in the most simplified expression – be called the dimension of honor and shame. The principle being that there is an honorable and dishonorable way of behaving and conducting business. In an Arab society, wherever you go you represent your family and tribe, or in a business sense, your company. So you are not free to simply act as you wish because, if you act shamefully, then the family, tribe, or wider business, is affected. This concept of honor and shame has its roots in early Bedouin code of practice, which existed even before Islam arrived. This is also not dissimilar to several Asian cultures.

Here is a brief guide to business etiquette in Saudi Arabia:

  • It’s personal: It is very useful to know a key person in an organization and to receive a personal introduction. A lot of business is still conducted on a ‘who-you-know’ basis, so networking is essential.
  • Be patient: Meetings are conducted at a leisurely pace, with the parties involved enjoying discussion over coffee and tea. Like the Chinese, Saudi business executives like to feel comfortable with their business partners before agreements or contracts are signed. This can require a number of initial meetings where no substantive business is discussed – but these meetings can be just as important as the material business negotiations. Sufficient time should be allotted for such business appointments, as they are often long in duration. Saudi business executives are also prone to welcome visitors and outside phone calls during such meetings; a lack of privacy is not uncommon in personal appointments, but will inevitably reduce for the substantive discussion.
  • Greeting etiquette is important: Saudi practice regarding greetings can be somewhat ritualized. When entering a meeting room with several people, a Saudi will greet each person individually with a handshake whilst standing. The same is expected of visitors – of course some appropriate Arabic phrases for such occasions is always appreciated.
  • If in doubt, be formal: It is always better to err on the side of formality rather than be too casual. Always arrive on time for meetings, although do not be too surprised if the person you are meeting is late. It is imperative that any business or social dealing with a Saudi national is conducted with the highest respect and integrity.
  • Business Cards: It is common for business cards to be double-sided, English on one side, and Arabic on the other. When you receive a business card, accept it with your right hand as the left is considered unclean, and treat it with respect. If you have a dual-sided card, offer it with the appropriate language upper most.
  • Personal space: In conversation, Saudis tend to stand much closer to one another than Americans, North Europeans, and East Asians do. Their personal space boundary is more similar to that of Latin Americans and Southern Europeans. Arabs will also use some body contact to add emphasis to their point or reaffirm that they have your attention – it is important not to draw back, however. This may be interpreted as a rebuff or rejection of what is being said. Respect is a value that is held very highly by the Arab people, and this shows in both business and social settings.
  • Be aware of well known social customs: Arabs traditionally use the right hand for all public functions — including shaking hands, eating, drinking, and passing objects to another person. Talking with one’s hands, or gesticulating wildly, may be considered impolite. It is also impolite to point the sole of the foot at the person to whom you are speaking. It may be discourteous to ask about a man’s wife and daughters. One should ask after his “family and children.” When tea and coffee are served, it could be considered impolite not to take at least one cup. When one is finished drinking, one should gently shake the cup to signal that a refill is not desired.
  • Be aware that Muslims pray five times a day, so take care to schedule meetings and phone calls so that they do not interrupt prayer times. Times are published daily in newspapers and online.