Saudi Arabia and all its laws, culture, and beliefs are underpinned by Islam. For Westerners doing business in Saudi Arabia, there are many differences that you should be aware of to operate in Saudi effectively. To navigate doing business in this country, it is beneficial to understand the culture to avoid offending your host and to enjoy your time in the country. Below is aspects of culture to consider when doing business in Saudi Arabia.
The weekend in Saudi Arabia is Friday and Saturday. Friday is the holy day and the day when Muslims attend the mosque meaning most offices are closed on Fridays. Muslims pray 5 times a day and although Westerners are not expected to participate, it means that business proceedings and other meetings will be stopped for prayer.
During the month of Ramadan, business slows down. During this time, Muslims fast food, beverage, and smoke from dawn to dusk. During this time no one is seen eating, drinking, or smoking in public or in the presence of those fasting. Offices generally close earlier in the day during Ramadan.
In Saudi, the men traditionally wear the thobe and shemagh, and women generally wear an abaya and headscarf. For Western men, wearing a business suit and tie is appropriate attire for meetings. Western women are required to wear an abaya. Wear clothing underneath the abaya that is long-sleeved, and loose-fitting pants or skirt that reaches the ankles, as you may be invited to remove your abaya during a meeting. Women are required to carry a headscarf at all times, in case they need to cover their hair. The concept of modesty applies to both men and women in Saudi.
Saudi Arabia has a high context culture, meaning that the communication is understood by more than just words spoken, but by body language, voice tone, facial expressions, body gestures, and eye movement. This is why Saudis prefer to do business face-to-face and build relationships. When communicating, ensure that you are genuine and present, as, unlike the Western world, Saudis prefer to know the person they are doing business with, and be wary of your gestures and body language you may be projecting.
It is essential to set an appointment with the other party for a business meeting. Saudis prefer to do business with people they have built a relationship with, therefore most meetings will be preceded by small talk about health, family, and leisure. Often, people will interrupt the meeting to talk to the other party, be patient if this occurs, and wait for the new party to leave before commencing the previous conversation.
Business in Saudi moves at a much slower pace than in other areas of the world. In general, it can take up to twice the amount of time to settle and agree on a contract in Saudi than in the USA. There is less rigidity in schedule and a more laid-back sense of time in Saudi culture, in comparison to Western culture. Expect to not talk about business at your first business meeting, as Saudis prefer to do business with people they know, like, and trust. Saudis will spend a lot of time getting to know you and your party; safe conversations topics are family, health, leisure, hobbies, and travel. Refrain from directly asking about female relatives, but you may ask about the family in general.
Saudis greet very differently from Westerners. Saudi men will shake hands and give each other a kiss on the cheek. Women will generally hug and kiss other women. Women and men do not publicly greet each other if they are from outside of their families.
If you are a Western businessman, greeting men, a handshake will suffice, however, if you have built a relationship with them, don’t be surprised if they kiss you on the cheek. If you are greeting women, do not shake hands or physically greet, simply greet them verbally. If you are a Western female, do not shake hands with a man, respond to the greeting they give you, but you are free to shake hands or hug a woman.
It is important to note, that you should always use your right hand when greeting and eating, as the left hand is considered unclean.
Business cards are given to everyone you meet. Ensure that your business cards are printed with one side in English and the other in Arabic, as not all Saudis are confident with their English. When you accept a business card from someone, study it before putting it away or on the table in front of you.
When doing negotiations in Saudi Arabia, it is important to remain respectful. For successful negotiations, it is vital to remain patient and not pressure your counterpart. Pressuring is viewed as disrespectful and embarrassing as you may have put them in an uncomfortable position. Allow them to make their own decision and embrace compromise and patience.
Most Saudi businessmen have studied abroad and are familiar with Western culture. They are usually comfortable with Western business etiquette, however, learning their customs will be appreciated by your hosts.