Doing business in Saudi Arabia: Ten survival tips  

All eyes have been on the Middle East recently, thanks to President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by his wife, Melania. Politics aside, would he slip up, committing cultural faux pas that could offend his hosts?

Saudi Arabia, despite the instinctive hospitality shown by Arabs, is uncompromising when it comes to rules and regulations. While it’s unlikely that President Trump would be checked for ID, or asked to prove that Melania was his wife, or expected to speak Arabic, here are a few golden rules for doing business in the Kingdom, whether or not you are the leader of the free world.

10 things to know about doing business in Saudi Arabia

  • Dress respectfully. No shorts or short sleeved shirts for men. Women should either wear the abaya (a long, black cloak) or wear loose, conservative clothing that extends to wrists and ankles. Foreign women do not need to wear a headscarf but it’s advisable to carry one in cased the matawa, the religious police, ask you to put it on.
  • Do not expect to have much contact with the opposite sex. Men should not mix in private with women who are not their wife or a blood relative. Being seen in public with someone who again, is not your spouse or your blood relative may be regarded as on offence. Women usually have their own segregated area in the workplace, and in restaurants. Donald Trump was treated to a concert performance by American country and western singer Toby Keith while in Saudi Arabia – but the audience was all-male.
  • Always be polite and respectful. Don’t swear, or blaspheme. Be restrained – wild gesticulating to make a point in conversation is seen as vulgar and lacking in control. Only use the right hand for taking food in public, or passing something to another person. Defer to senior people – meaning age and rank – as a sign of respect.
  • Alcohol is illegal. Don’t bring it into the country, or attempt to buy or sell it. The penalties are severe. While alcohol is sometimes available within the privacy of an expat residential compound, and while plenty of Saudis cross the causeway to more liberal Bahrain at weekends, where drink is available, do not get involved while you are in the Kingdom.
  • Everything takes time. Do not expect to plunge straight into business; Saudis are highly relationship orientated and will only work with people they trust. Expect to spend considerable time building a relationship and making small talk before moving on to business.
  • Everything stops for prayers. Muslims pray five times a day and this is strictly observed in Saudi Arabia. Meetings and meals need to be arranged around prayer times, as well as the holidays of Ramadan and Hajj.
  • Business entertaining is important. Accept invitations and reciprocate. Generally speaking, the food is excellent and Saudis are generous hosts, to the extent that, according to press reports, steak and ketchup were offered to President Trump at a banquet alongside Saudi specialities.
  • Honor, and saving face, are essential to Saudis. Do not do or say anything that will cause someone to lose face. Try to avoid arguments; settle disputes as diplomatically as you possibly can, and never put somebody down in public.
  • Saudis have a flexible attitude to time, the feeling being that giving a person or situation the time they or it deserve is more important than keeping to schedule. So make business appointments for a time of day, rather than a specific hour, and do not be offended if they run late.
  • Finally, hone your negotiating skills. Saudis are skilled negotiators and will play subtle games to get what they want. Do not press somebody to make a decision, as this puts you in a position of extreme weakness.

For more top tips on working with Arabs, view our recent infographic. Click here.

About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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