Cultural Differences – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is based on a social system marked by a sense of community and tradition. In the center stands the family. All values that play an important role in social life are decisive in the business world as well. Generosity, reciprocal caretaking, and respect are therefore characteristics which you definitely should display in business collaboration with Saudis.

Also, status and age are what decides anyone’s position. People will get things because of their personal connections or seniority. Hence, at the first setting up of a business deal it is recommended that you are introduced by a senior, experienced go-between so that his status is carried over to you. Recognition for yourself you may gain in later cooperation.

Dress code

Foreigners are not expected to wear the Saudi uniformity of dress. Therefore, a business suit with long sleeved shirt and necktie – despite the high temperatures – are accepted for men. For women the rule of thumb is: cover up more than you show. Choose a long skirt or a pantsuit with a long jacket.

Take into consideration, that status is also shown by your demeanor and style of clothing. Expensive labels emphasizes your social standing.


In Saudi Arabia, work days are Sunday to Thursday, while working hours are often seen as flexible.

It is advisable not to schedule any important meetings or tasks during Ramadan or near one of the three public holidays Eid-Al-Fitr, Eid-Al-Adha and Saudi National Day on September 23rd. During Hadsch, long pilgrimage, and Amra, short pilgrimage, there are thousands of Muslims travelling to Saudi Arabia which puts a strain on the local infrastructure.

Don’t rely on being informed about these religious events that slow business down, but better check on a calendar for yourself. Make use of the weeks just before, this is when things are sped up since everyone wants to finish their work in time.


At a first business meeting, greetings occur strictly according to hierarchy: always offer your hand to the person at the top of the Saudi Arab firm first. And don’t play the strong man by pressing the other person’s hand as hard as possible. The rule here is rather that a gentle placing together of hands is a showing of respect. Often that can be a drawn-out procedure. As a guest you should on no account be the first to pull away your hand. It is better to simply wait until your Saudi Arab host puts an end to that type of handshake.

All in all, you should always be somewhat reticent when greeting somebody and not shove yourself too much into the center of attention. Once you’ve got to know each other better, however, Saudis may greet you even with a kiss on the cheek.

If women are in the Saudi Arab delegation, you as a man should not offer your hand as a greeting. In the Islamic culture it is not appropriate for men and women to touch each other in public. Leave it to the Saudi Arab business woman as to whether she extends her hand to you or not during a few words of greeting. As a foreign businesswoman you should similarly be prepared that your Saudi Arab business partner might not offer you his hand on religious grounds.

Business cards

Business cards are exchanged with a certain degree of respect. When handing over a business card you should be careful to use only the right hand – the same is true when you accept a business card.

Your business cards should be written in English and/or Arabic. It is important that going by the description of your function your standing in the firm can be recognized and your decision-making rights can be derived from that.

Take good note of the names and titles of your new contacts when you accept business cards! Pay attention to the status and rank of each person, because later there ought to be representatives at the same hierarchical level who deal with each other.

Names and forms of address

It is common in the Gulf Arab area to address people by their personal names e.g. Mr. Mohammed. However, titles are also used.

Building up relationships

Establishing new business contacts in Saudi Arabia means that one wants to be accepted in a community. Saudi Arabs put great emphasis on a personal connection. They want to feel that they can trust you. And because of this they have to know you well.

This kind of personal relationships is called wasta. It translates roughly to „connections“ or „influence“ and is sometimes referred to as “vitamin W”. The wasta tradition has its origin in tribal family structures. Therefore, Saudis have strong social as well as business networks, and they will do anything in their power to serve family and friends.

For Saudis, wasta is also more important than rules. If they like you they will break the rule for you. Let’s assume you need a certain document. While there may be rules how to get it, the procedure is actually very inconsistent. You might have filled in some forms, but then they will ask you for other forms. This back and forth can take weeks or months without significant results.

That’s when you should use wasta: Pick up the phone and talk to somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody in that particular office. Suddenly, everything will be done in 30 minutes. So while in almost every country or society it is to a certain extent important to have a strong network, in Saudi Arabia the right connections can be crucial to get anything done at all.

Of course there is also a more negative side to wasta, especially when it comes to things such as favoring unqualified applicants for a job or giving out scholarships to underperforming students. But in business, it is definitely crucial to build up a network of people who will help you or arrange things for you. But how do you do that?

First of all you have to spend a lot of time with people to get to know them. Therefore, business situations in Saudi Arabia will not proceed in the more formal or structured way that you may expect. When it comes to a meeting, for example, be prepared that your Saudi colleagues will stroll in with a cup of coffee in their hand, and they will want to chat about family, travel, sports, hobbies, the weather etc., not about business yet. They want to meet on a personal level.

Let yourself into that, get involved and bear in mind that building up relationships means that there is a lot of overlap of private and business life. Try to be open for this and feel free to also ask lots of questions in return. Just don’t ask too specifically about your business partner’s wife, this could be misunderstood.

Besides this extensive form of small talk, the best way to draw bridges to people in Saudi Arabia is actually by sharing food. You will discover that Saudi Arabs are very generous and hospitable people. They will constantly offer you food. Even if you are not hungry or you don’t have the time, take a piece of the offered food and say that you will eat it later. Show your appreciation. Always try to participate: accept invitations for business meals, take a coffee break together, eat lunch together, bring food yourself to share.

Last but not least: Try to speak some few words in Arabic. Your business partner will immediately connect easier with you.
Slowly and steadily build up your personal network in Saudi Arabia.

Communication style

The importance of personal relationships is evident in any business communication with Saudi Arabs. First of all, they usually stand very close to one another and tend to touch their counterparts or try to pull them closer as a sign of mutual trust. Even if you feel uncomfortable in such a situation, it would be rather rude to withdraw in order to regain the personal space you are used to. Secondly, hierarchy and social status determine who is talking to whom. Always address the highest-ranking Saudi Arab first.

Of even more importance is, however, that Saudi Arabs communicate very diplomatic and indirect. One is always careful not to offend through harsh words or negative statements. The golden rule is to allow everyone to save face by expressing oneself as skillfully and as positively as possible.

When someone has to turn down a request, for example, giving a direct negative answer would be offensive from the Saudi point of view. A “no” places the relationship in danger. Therefore, Saudi Arabs might answer with “No problem”, even when the request made cannot be fulfilled. As a consequence, an Arabic “yes” is not always to be understood as a “yes” in the Western sense, but often rather expresses only the general readiness to try it.

Often, metaphors and circumlocutions are used so as not to have to give a direct “no”. Gestures and facial expressions, such as lifting of the eyebrows or a look of boredom, can be a clue to the real answer. If your Saudi Arab conversation partner does not deal with your matter concretely, but rather changes the topic or speaks more generally, that is to be interpreted as a negative signal. Statements such as “I’ll think about it,” or “Let’s see what happens,” generally mean no.

If you yourself have to give a negative answer try to wrap it in equally benevolent words. Saudi Arabs will be able to decipher it and get what you actually mean.

They are well trained to do so, since they use a rather flowery language in general. They are very articulate and master any communication level.


In the same indirect and positive way you should handle any form of criticism. If you have to criticize someone’s work or proposal you should try to make sure that this person does not lose face. Start by recognizing many positive aspects before carefully naming points that could be improved. Spend time in the beginning on talking and building up the relationship, making everyone feeling comfortable. Think about this: it is more important to preserve harmony and the personal relationship than to attribute blame to somebody and to demand accountability.

Never give any critical feedback in a group. Saudi Arabs certainly don’t like to be pointed out in front of others. They will quickly feel that their dignity and honor have been insulted, they will feel ashamed. If you express criticism at all you should do it individually and privately. Even if you just intend to remind someone of doing something it might ashame them.

Be very sensitive regarding shame in general. For example, an US-American manager once wrote to a Saudi business partner who couldn’t attend a meeting: “It’s such a shame that you couldn’t attend the meeting. Let me inform you about the things we talked about”. Of course what the manager meant was: “Too bad that you were not here, we missed you. But let me inform you about the things we talked about“. The Saudi though understood something like: “Shame on you that you weren’t there“. The Saudi perception was that the US-American manager criticized and denounced him.

Another example: An US-American working in a lab in Saudi Arabia always had his tools spread out on the table. His Arab colleagues would come, take the tools, use them and not bring them back. So in a meeting he said: “I wish people would stop stealing my tools“. US-Americans use the word “steal” like „to take“, it doesn’t insinuate a crime. But in Saudi Arabia stealing is a very serious crime. So his colleagues were offended.

Business correspondence

Saudis will communicate everything personally – face to face. They won’t respond to a letter or an email – or at least it will take weeks until they get back to you.

So if you need something, pick up the phone or even better go there. Sit down together and have a coffee, do some small talk and then ask about what you wanted to know. This takes time and can be frustrating, if you are more used to sending out a quick email and getting a reply straightaway. But in Saudi Arabia you can’t expect anything to be done without any personal contact. So, do send emails, but always call as well or go there and refer to your email in a personal conversation. Otherwise things take even longer.

You’ll also find that it is hard to find any information on paper, since information is usually shared verbally. This means that you have to walk around and collect individual bits of information in meetings or informal gatherings. Put the puzzle together bit by bit.


It is quite likely that meetings in Saudi Arabia will not match your expectations. First of all, your Saudi Arab business partners have a casual concept of time. If they don’t show up on time in the conference room, it’s not a sign of disinterest or disrespect. Even short-term cancellations are normal. Time is elastic in the Arabic world and not very important at all. It is best to confirm the time of a meeting shortly beforehand by phone, but still count on your business partners’ late arrival. Don’t show any impatience or anger, you would only loose face.

Late or not, there is always plenty of time to chat. Trying to get down to business too quickly can backfire. The personal relationship must always be established first before one is ready to do business with each other. As a rule of thumb: never skip small talk.

Also, do not expect an agenda that is followed closely. Topics are discussed organically. Come with enough time and patience for lengthy digressions. The intense verbal communication plays a vital role in any meeting. Saudis will talk on top of each other. They show their engagement and interest in a conversation by frequently interrupting each other to carry on the dialogue.

The goal is, however, to come to agreement on common action harmoniously. Naturally, that sets the underlying tone for meetings. Caution is always a good strategy as well as taking the characteristics of the Saudi Arab communication style to heart.

Finally, meetings with Saudi Arab business partners are often interrupted by phone calls or unexpected visits. These things often drag out intolerably long for foreign business partners. However, that should not be mistaken for impoliteness or lack of professionalism. According to their belief that relationships are paramount, Saudis offer all the time in the world to their conversation partners – or someone who rings. There is only one thing that helps: endless patience and flexibility as regards time.


Status and prestige play a significant role in Saudi Arabia. Against that background, your presentation materials should be of high quality and well designed. Use many visual elements such as films, pictures, and graphs. Do not skimp on the use of color.

Try to present in a lively and entertaining way! Give only enough “dry” facts as are necessary to roll out your topic clearly. Show just a few but highly evocative slides. Include tables, statistics, or examples of calculations only sparingly. In Saudi Arabia the spoken word is more highly regarded than the written word.
Always focus on specific benefits or advantages for your Saudi Arab business partners to be gained. Observe the hierarchical levels of those present if you address the participants directly.

It is a distinct advantage to be able to present at least some of your material not only in English but also in Arabic.

Negotiations and contracts

Good preparation for negotiations in Saudi Arabia is essential. Make sure you know who will be present, who has what powers of decision, and how in general the hierarchical levels function. In order to preserve mutual respect make sure the right people in the appropriate hierarchical positions are present. Therefore, it’s a good idea to mirror the hierarchical assembly at the negotiating table. If, for example, the Saudi Arab company owner is negotiating, the owner or the top manager should be represented on your side.

Do not mistake your Gulf Arab negotiating partners’ often flowery language for naivety or weakness. Saudi Arabs are really hard negotiators. You will need a lot of time as well as a good margin so that you can give many discounts, because you will have to go little by little. During the negotiation process, there will always be a lot of uncertainty. Don’t push your Arab partners with too many details to clarify, but just go with the flow.

The bottom line is the personal relationship. Only wasta really works. If Saudi Arabs respect your company and are convinced of you as their future business partner, everything will fall into place. It is therefore advisable to have a really powerful relationship manager who is Saudi and who belongs to a well-esteemed family or tribe.

Contracts aren’t necessarily as detailed as they are in many Western countries. Saudis simply don’t think about that many possible scenarios, because from their point of view during the future cooperation the personal relationship counts much more than any written document.

Working style

You may find that your Saudi Arabian colleagues or business partners are not as organized as you would expect them to be from your perspective. In general, Saudi Arabs are multi-active. This means that they are often doing several things at once instead of one thing after another. They also don’t plan ahead step by step, but rather react flexibly and improvise, if necessary.

Another reason is that in Saudi culture work will never be the priority in someone’s life. The two top priorities are family and religion. Yes, people who are still single might work overtime, but Saudis with families will not. And since family is so important many employees will not attend work due to family issues quite more often than you may be used to. This has to do with the fact that Saudis usually have big families. Also their understanding of family encompasses cousins and other relatives that Westerners would not consider direct family. Thus, there are very frequent family emergencies and other reasons for not working. One week a brother is in hospital, the next week a sister is having a baby. Even excuses like „Oh, I couldn’t come to work because my wife was having a headache and I was very worried“, are widely accepted.

Also religion affects work, as most Saudi Arabs pray five times a day. They interrupt work or a meeting and go to pray when it’s prayer time. It only takes a couple of minutes and then life goes on. As a Westener, you should definitely not say that they just as well can pray later. What is helpful is a prayer app, just download one for free so you know for sure when it is prayer time (varies with regard to sunset etc.).

Saudi Arabs very frequently use the expression “Insha-allah”, which means “God‘s will”: “See you tomorrow, Insha-allah“, “Can you prepare this for tomorrow?” “Yes, I will, Insha-allah“. They take it very seriously and get offended when foreigners laugh about it or think that they want to make an excuse. So never say anything like: “Ah, Insha-allah, does this mean that you will get it done or rather not“? However, even Saudis themselves will say that there are different levels of “Insha-allah”: If they say it to their parents, they really mean that they will try. If they say it to their friends it may sound more like “Let’s see, if I have time …“. But again: Don’t make fun of it, just accept it!

Things happen slowly in Saudi Arabia. The level of productivity in an 8-hour day probably equals to 3 or 4 hours. The bottom line is: Don’t give a task to someone and expect it to get done. Instead, you should be prepared to always follow up on things and to constantly ask in a very nice way about the to-dos. But be careful, Saudis certainly won’t accept to be pushed! Don’t make anything sound like a threat.

Moreover, it is always best to intertwine work with personal relationship. If you want something to be done you’ll have to sit with the person, have a coffee together, and talk. Many Saudis don’t like to work by themselves and also won’t admit if they are having a problem with a task. But the minute you say “Hey, can we do this together“, it will get done.

Meet your Saudi colleagues on a personal level. If you have a good relationship with them or if you have even developed a friendship, they will get things done because they want to help you personally.

Work during Ramadan

During the whole month of Ramadan, employees in Saudi Arabia have a shortened work day until 2 pm. Everyone, who is not a Moslem, has to work the full day though.

As they are fasting during daytime, Saudis will stay awake very long at night to have a meal with their family and also might get up before sunrise to eat again. Therefore, many will come into the office being too tired to work. Everything slows down.

As a foreigner, you are expected to respect the rules. All restaurants will be closed during daytime and you can’t bring your own food and eat it at your desk either. You aren’t even allowed to carry a water bottle with you. However, in many offices there is a designated area for foreigners or people who are not fasting, e.g. some kind of Ramadan kitchen where you can eat or drink some tea behind closed doors.

Business meals

Business meals play an important part in Saudi business life and offer a great opportunity to build up relationships. If a business partner issues an invitation you should definitely accept, but not right away. Politeness decrees that at first you cautiously and gratefully refuse, perhaps saying that you don’t want to cause inconvenience.

If your business partner invites you again, say thank you for the generous invitation once more and repeat that you don’t want your host to go to any trouble. Only if he issues the invitation a third time – according to the “three times rule” – should you accept and express copious gratitude for it!
Saudis go to great lengths to show their hospitality. You will be invited to first-class restaurants where a certain formality is to be expected. Let your host decide on the seating arrangements, which will be according to the hierarchical rank of the participants.

Be prepared for very large meals, often buffet-style, that start rather late (often at around 10pm) and take many hours. Show your appreciation for the food on offer and try everything, even if it is very unusual for you.

Be aware that Saudis don’t talk about work at business dinners but about personal interests to build up the relationship further: sports, cars, travel or films are good topics to start with. Also general questions about the family are welcome. Politics should be avoided completely as well as any topic that is controversial to Islam.

Private invitations

During a private invitation you should observe some basic etiquette rules: Take your shoes off when entering the house. Wait until you are seated, usually you will sit on the ground. Make sure that you don’t show your bare feet. Stand up whenever new persons arrive. Don’t use your left hand while eating. Try all food that is offered and show gratitude, joy and appreciation. “Mashallah” (“God has willed“) is an expression used a lot for praise. But don’t compliment things in the house too much because Saudis think that they have to give it to you as a gift. And last but not least, balance your talking time between genders: don’t talk for too long to the other gender. Maybe you even try to smoke a shisha. There is no marihuana in it and it‘s not as harmful as cigarettes.

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