Saudi Arabia

Islam – specifically Wahabism – is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, which is an Islamic state strictly ruled by the laws of Islam.  It is critically important for expatriates and travelers to Saudi Arabia to understand the norms and rules associated with Islam, and to study the laws of Saudi Arabia which are very strictly enforced.  Observing the laws and traditions are important to personal safety and to building working relationships.

Traditional Saudi Worldview

Group Orientation
Identity is defined by family, tribe, friends, neighbors, employer & religion. “The world is divided into neighbors and strangers.”

Harmony within the group is very important. Conflict is avoided and face is critical.

Relationship Focused
Personal interaction takes precedence over strict schedules; business can only be done with “friends.”

Patterns of rank and status are strictly observed in all social and business situations.

Need for Certainty
Rules for appropriate behavior are known and should not be broken; strong culture of dependence; very bureaucratic. Generally, Saudis are also highly risk-averse.

High Context
Relationships determine the way individuals will interact in any given situation. Age, status, family, position, gender all play a part in determining how one will communicate.

Fluid Time (Polychronic)
Time is intangible with little structure. Priorities constantly change.

Strong belief in God (Allah) and acceptance that things depend on God. (In Sha’ Allah)

Cultural Note:

  • A very conservative and Islamic society, mostly Wahhabist, a strict Sunni sub-sect.
  • Nearly 6 million guest workers in a population of 28 million; 80% of population in cities, with remaining nomadic Bedouins in the desert.
  • Role of women is highly constrained, though change is occurring slowly

Cultural Assumptions

  • Family honor is of great importance
  • Who you know is more important than what you know
  • The sense of family is wide and extended
  • Building strong personal relationships is critical
  • Reciprocation and hospitality
  • Hierarchy and respect for elders and superiors
  • Group stability and harmony
  • Understanding that humans do not control events.  That is up to God’s will.

Traditional Saudi Communication Style

Imply or suggest what is meant.  You must read between the lines to find the real message. Non-verbal communication may contain more of the message than the words themselves. Stories or parables may be used to make a point or expose a problem.

High Context    
The style and tone of communication varies according to those involved in the conversation. In high-context communication, the way one dresses, tone of voice and personal demeanor all carry a message.

Sensitivity to hierarchy and face-saving is very important. Ritual greetings, showing polite interest in the individual, and eye contact may seem simply like friendliness, but are an important part of the formal steps toward establishing a relationship.

Emotional displays are common and expected. Being emotionally engaged is a demonstration of interest and of giving one’s full self to the discussion.

For those accustomed to linear communication,  conversations with Saudis may appear to weave and wander. It requires patience and a great deal of listening to understand the message.


Guidelines for Communication with Saudis

  • Understand that a good personal relationship is the most important single factor in doing business successfully with Saudis.  Saudis will usually begin meetings inquiring about each other’s health and personal activities.
  • Accept that verbal reticence will be highly disconcerting to the Saudis.  If you are quiet, they may simply think something is wrong.  Not only do you have to speak more when you are with Saudis, but you have to step up the volume as well at certain times in the conversation.  Loudness of voice, rising pitch and tone, even shouting, all denote sincerity in Saudi discourse.  In Saudi society it is quite normal to use speech in a rhetorical, almost aggressive manner to make a point clearly.
  • Recognize that Saudis place great value on hospitality.  If you have drinks, food or snacks in the office, you should offer to share it with your Saudi colleagues.
  • Learn that a Saudi is not likely to criticize your efforts openly.  He is more likely to hint that changes are needed or respond with inaction.  If phrased too bluntly, criticism of their work will be taken as a personal insult by Saudi employees.   Always avoid criticizing a Saudi colleague in front of others.
  • Accept that Saudis implicitly mistrust people who are attempting to hurry or pressure them into a particular deal.  They will evaluate the source of a proposal as much as the content.  If you press for a specific time by which you want a decision, you may actually harm your chances for success.
  • Be aware that Saudis are very relaxed about the timing of events.  While appointments are necessary, you might arrive to find several other business people present and several meetings occurring simultaneously.
  • Recognize that Saudis love to use flattery and profession of friendship; therefore you should not hesitate to praise their country, their arts, their dress and food.
  • Understand that Saudis are used to dealing with foreigners and readily forgive them for not behaving like Saudis.  The most important thing is to avoid saying or doing anything that they consider insulting or derogatory.  This includes the use of alcohol, improper dress, and over-familiarity with the few women they allow you to meet, and challenging the basic concepts of Islam.
  • Saudis bring Allah into their arguments in almost every conversation.  Saudis do not like discussing unpleasant matters such as illness, misfortune, accidents or death.  They are even reluctant to tell you bad news about business, so bear this in mind when everything looks rosy.
  • Recognize that Muslims pray five times a day:  at dawn (4:30-5:00 a.m.), around noon, in the afternoon between 2:00 and 4:00, at sunset, and one hour after sunset (never later than 9:00 p.m.).  At prayer time everything stops.   Plan your schedule around prayer times.

Saudi Business Patterns

  • Business meetings last longer than time set
  • Not all agenda topics covered
  • Deviation from agenda is typical
  • Interruptions are common and acceptable

Suggestion: Maneuver your chair so that you are sitting right next to the man you wish to do business with.  You have to be no more than a foot away and nearer to him than anybody else.Understand that Saudis openly discuss:

  • Money
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Family

Because maintaining harmony is at the foundation of all communication, it is not appropriate to share strong differing opinions about religion and politics. Also, it is considered polite to inquire about a man’s family, but disrespectful to ask about his wife.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Saudis, in general, make liberal use of gestures, especially if they are enthusiastic about what they are saying.  Men use gestures more than women.  To greet with respect or sincerity, after shaking hands, place the right hand to the heart or chest.  Failure to shake hands when meeting someone or saying goodbye is considered rude. When a Western man is introduced to an Saudi woman they will not shake hands. Do not shake hands firmly or pump your whole arm up-and-down.  Also, realize that people shake hands and hold hands longer in greeting than in the West; allow your counterpart to withdraw first.

Saudis will interpret your behavior negatively if you behave with too much familiarity toward a person of the opposite sex.  Behaviors such as overly enthusiastic greetings, animated and joking conversations, and casual invitations to lunch can be easily misinterpreted.  The public display of intimacy between men and women is strictly forbidden by the Saudi social code, including holding hands or linking arms or any gesture of affection. However members of the same sex may be seen walking hand-in-hand and may frequently touch during conversation.

Saudis will typically stand very close to you when in a conversation.  If you try to keep a greater distance, the Saudi may think you find his physical presence distasteful or that you are a particularly cold individual.  When standing in conversation with someone, leaning against the wall or keeping hands in pockets is taken as a lack of respect.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Leader's vision, insight or intuition, less methodical, scientific. Linked with saving face so as not to cause embarrassment
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Pay, status, titles, job security, leadership of others, concern for conformity, loyalty
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Informal, irregular, very personal, paternalistic
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Argumentative, can appear combative, face-to-face disagreement usual, often use third party. May feel confrontational but care is taken not to insult one another, only to show passion for the topic. Negotiations cannot be rushed.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Leader-centric, top-down, subordinates expect clear goals and information
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Create harmonious setting, leader-centric, indirect, information-giving. Heated discussion may occur, but words of appreciation for one another at the end of the meeting restores harmony and face when all accept the exchange was out of commitment to the work.
Hierarchical, paternalistic, nurturing leader; subordinate gives loyalty and obedience.
HIRING Performance/results balanced by background relations and obligations, paternalistic
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Based on network, personal relationships, obligations

The Saudi World: Rules of Etiquette

  • Everyone stands when new guests arrive at a social gathering and when an elderly or high-ranking person enters or leaves.  Men stand when a woman enters the room.
  • Sitting in a manner that allows the sole of one’s shoe to face another person is insulting.
  • If you admire something openly, an Saudi may insist that it be taken as a gift.
  • Gifts are given and accepted with both hands and are not opened in the presence of the donor.
  • Most Saudis do not like to touch or be in the presence of household animals, especially dogs.  Pets should be kept out of sight when Saudi guests are present.
  • When eating with Saudis, the left hand is not used.  (The left hand is considered unclean.)  Always pass goods with your right hand.  When eating in someone’s home, your hosts will offer you the best dishes to eat, which you must accept.  You are not expected to talk much at mealtime.
  • At a restaurant, a Saudi will almost always insist on paying, especially if it is a business-related occasion.  Giving in graciously after a ritual gesture to pay and then returning the favor later is an appropriate response. Saudis find the public calculation and division of a restaurant bill embarrassing.


Basic Religious Attitudes

  • Everyone believes in God, acknowledges His power and strictly follows the rules of Islam.
  • Humans cannot control all events; some things depend on God.
  • Piety is one of the most admirable characteristics in a person.
  • There should be no separation between church and state.
  • Religion should be taught in schools and promoted by the government.
  • Men and women should be educated separately
  • Boys should receive a strict Islamic education
  • Non-Islamic individuals are not fully accepted into society