To start off our ‘Inform Series’, is one of the most important topics, Business Etiquette in Saudi Arabia. With the Kingdom’s move to diversify its economy away from oil, business opportunities for international companies are rapidly increasing. It is essential for Westerners doing business in the Kingdom to understand Saudi etiquette and the personal manner in which they should behave. Often Western or Asian businessmen have not had exposure to the Middle Eastern customs and can run the risk of offending their hosts. Here we run through the most common situations and the etiquette you should adopt.
The dress code in Saudi Arabia is more reserved than other countries in the Middle East. Your host will likely be wearing the traditional national dress of a thobe and shemagh – headdress. For Western men, business attire should be formal as a sign of respect for whom you are meeting, a conservative business suit is best. Both local and visiting women are required to wear an abaya. A headscarf need not be worn but should be carried in case you are told by the religious police that you need to cover your head. Under your abaya, it is advised to wear full length trousers or dress with a top that has long sleeves and a high neck, in the case that you are invited to remove your abaya during less formal meetings.
Men shake hands when they greet each other. When entering a meeting a meeting full of people, a Saudi will take the time to greet each person individually, with a handshake, whilst standing. The same is expected of visitors. Although not required, learning some Arabic greetings are appreciated, even if you struggle with the pronunciation. You may see good friends greet each other with both a handshake and a kiss on each cheek. This is unlikely something that you will be required to do.
Men and women do not shake hands or greet each other in public if they are outside of the family and traditionally were not part of business meetings. However women in business are becoming more common in Saudi Arabia; to avoid awkward situations, wait to see how they greet you and respond in the same manner.
Business meetings can be lengthy in the Middle East, Saudis like to take their time and feel comfortable with their business partners before any agreements are entered into. Business meetings in Saudi start late and often run over the allotted time, make sure you take this into consideration when arranging your next meeting, however you should still arrive on time. Saudi business executives are also prone to take phone calls during meetings and a lack of privacy is not uncommon during appointments. Other visitors may wander into the room and start a different discussion. You may join in, but do not try to bring the topic back to the original discussion until the new person leaves. Make sure you remain outwardly patient throughout all interruptions. Often discussion can be around current news, the economy, personal health etc, however ensure that you do not directly inquire about a female member of the family.
Business cards are exchanged at the beginning of a meeting and should be studied before placing on the table in front of you. It is considered rude if you put the card straight into your pocket or briefcase without even looking at it. Be respectful in the way you give your card to others, if you are across a large table, walk around the outside rather than throwing your card to them. Business cards are usually printed in English on one side and Arabic on the other.
When offered coffee or tea during a meeting, it is important that you receive it with your right hand, if for any reason you cannot use your right hand e.g. you have a broken arm, then you should apologize whilst receiving with your left. It is considered impolite to not take at least one cup. If your host is serving the traditional Al-Qahwa, then to simply hold your cup to the server to take it away will not do, he will think you would like a refill. To signal that you are finished, hold your cup out to him and gently shake it from side to side.
Showing the sole of your foot directly to another person is impolite as the sole of the shoe / foot can be unclean. Try to avoid crossing your legs during meetings to ensure you avoid offending someone.
Business decisions are made slowly and the process can not be rushed. It can often take a few meetings before one is made. Business is hierarchical. Decisions are made by the highest ranking person but can take several different people to approve before this person is reached. Saudis are tough negotiators and when discussing price, will often make an initial offer that is extremely low if they are buying. Conversely, when they are selling, their initial offer will be extremely high. Repeat your main points when negotiating, since it will be interpreted as you are telling the truth. Do not become pushy or use hard tactics at any point during negotiations.
A majority of Saudi business executives have either studied or worked abroad, many of them in the U.S. They are familiar with Western culture, therefore they are comfortable with the Western approach to business. provided respect is shown to Saudi traditions.