Country Crash Course: Saudi Arabia

Islam above all

When doing business in Saudi Arabia, it is important to be very aware that Islam transcends all business practices and governs the Saudis’ personal, political, economic and legal lives.

Relationships & Communication
You will need a Saudi sponsor (wakeel) to enter the country. The sponsor acts as an intermediary and arranges appointments with appropriate individuals. Saudis do not require as much personal space as most Westerners. As such, they will stand close to you while conversing and you may feel as if your personal space has been violated. Saudis prefer to work with people they know and trust and will spend a great deal of time on the “getting-to-know-you” part of relationship building. You must be patient. Since Saudis will most likely judge you on appearances, dress and present yourself well.

Greetings & Introductions
Men shake hands and good male friends may greet each other with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek. Women generally hug and kiss close female friends. Men and women from different families would not greet each other in public. When Saudis greet each other they take their time and converse about general things.

Business Meeting Etiquette
Appointments are necessary and should be made several weeks to one month in advance, if at all possible. When meeting with government officials, a firm date will not be settled upon until you are physically in the country. Try to schedule meetings in the morning. You should arrive at meetings on time, although it is an accepted custom to keep foreigners waiting. It is not uncommon to have a meeting cancelled once you arrive.

You may expect frequent interruptions if your relationship isn’t yet strong. Others 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. Business meetings start after prolonged inquiries about health, family, and so on. Never inquire about a Saudi’s wife.

Business Negotiating
Decisions are made slowly. Do not try to rush the process. The society is extremely bureaucratic and most decisions require several layers of approval. It takes several visits to accomplish simple tasks. Saudis are tough negotiators.

Business is hierarchical, and decisions can easily be overturned by a higher-ranking individual.

Repeat your main points, as doing so will be interpreted as meaning that you are telling the truth. Do not use high-pressure tactics. When discussing price, Saudis will often make an initial offer that is extremely low when they are buying. Conversely, when they are selling, their initial offer will be extremely high. You may need to compromise on a point if someone’s dignity is at stake. There is a tendency to avoid giving bad news and to give effusive acceptances, which may only mean “perhaps.”

It is important to bear in mind that the tips we have provided act as basic and general introductions only. They are not in any way definitive. We do not intend to stereotype, pigeon-hole or try to quantify any culture or people. Each society, country and culture will have numerous nuances that would make it irresponsible to suggest a uniform approach to understanding any country’s social/business culture or etiquette. One also has to take into account the personal cultures of individuals, whether they be religious, regional, gender, corporate or other. However, loose guidelines can assist in bettering understanding and avoiding offence, and these tips are meant only to achieve that.

As this may be a lot of information to take in, we will leave you with three final tips for your own cultural insurance policy:
•    Be self-aware of your own behaviour and how other people are reacting to you.
•    Watch what other people do and learn to copy the behaviour of others for things like touch, eye contact and speaking distance.
•    Develop listening skills to make you a more effective communicator.

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Caroline Osinski is global training manager at Kwintessential, a cross-cultural communications consultancy that provides intercultural training, translation, localization, interpreting and design services, based in Somerset, UK. She can be reached at Or follow on Twitter at @kwint_train

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