Saudi Arabia Country Profile - Business Etiquette

     
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Organisational structure

Although some of the multinational corporations in Saudi Arabia may have a more international culture to them, business operations are usually very conservative and hierarchical. Showing respect for family and elders is paramount, so you will need to maintain the correct degree of formality. Older people and those in senior positions are treated with the utmost respect and their decisions are rarely questioned. The decision-making process can be very prolonged as Saudis like to take time to weigh up options and get to know people before accepting a proposition.

Management style

In Saudi Arabia there tends to be some distance between managers and subordinate staff. Managers reach decisions after lengthy discussions with major stakeholders, but once that decision is made, junior employees are expected to implement it without question. In general, Saudis tend to be quite risk averse and changes may take a long time to implement. Failure is seen as a reflection on both the individual and the group, which goes some way towards explaining the frequently lengthy deliberations.

Formality

Civility and manners are important in Saudi Arabia, so adopt a formal approach to make the right impression. Avoid abbreviating people’s names without invitation as this may cause offence. Before meeting a new contact, try to find out the correct form of address for them, particularly if they hold a title such as ‘Sheikh’, meaning ‘chief’. If in doubt, the usual form of generic address is ‘Sayyed’, meaning ‘Sir’ for a man or ‘Sayeeda’, meaning ‘madame’ for a woman, followed by their full name.

Relationships

Business in Saudi Arabia is a very personal affair. Face-to-face meetings are essential to developing the relationships you need to succeed there. Your sponsor may be able to help with introductions, but patience will be your best friend. Put aside plenty of time for meetings and social occasions as both are frequently interrupted. That said, Saudis enjoy taking the time to get to know you, and even though you may need to make several visits to achieve positive outcomes the effort will be appreciated.

Dress code

There is a tendency amongst Saudis to judge people on appearances, so it’s important to look the part. Wearing good-quality, conservative clothes will make a good impression. Most Saudi businessmen wear variants on the traditional thobe and keffiyeh for both business and leisure, although some choose western attire. Male visitors are not expected to wear traditional Saudi business attire, but it’s important to respect the conservative nature of society, so men should wear long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt if not a suit and tie. Saudi women wear the abaya in public, although many now choose western clothing at home. Women visiting the country must dress modestly, covering their shoulders, arms and legs at all times. They should also wear a headscarf in public as the police may stop women whose hair is not covered.

Greetings

The typical business greeting between two men in Saudi Arabia is a handshake. Two women may hug, but men and women who are not acquainted must not greet each other in public. Social situations will most likely be single-sex or segregated, however don’t be surprised if people stand very close to you as the concept of personal space is different in the region.

Punctuality

Appointment times are usually considered guides in Saudi Arabia as the culture is very fluid in timings. That said, you will most likely be expected to arrive on time even if your contacts are not! If you are working to strict deadlines, you will need to continually reiterate the timescales to have any chance of sticking to them.

Meetings

Small talk is common prior to meetings but you should always avoid personal questions such as enquiring about wives or children. Saudis are tough negotiators and will often start with an excessively low or high price in their own favour. Everything is considered negotiable, but high-pressure tactics are not welcome. Instead, repeat your main points as this will signify that they are true. There is a tendency for Saudis to avoid giving negative answers, so a verbal ‘yes’ may in fact only mean ‘maybe’ and decisions are easily overturned.

Cultural sensitivity

The Islamic faith is culturally bound to the Saudi nation and religion has a great impact on day-to-day life. Friday is the Muslim holy day and no business activities take place then. Muslims also pray five times a day, so be considerate of this when scheduling appointments. Although western visitors are not expected to fast during Ramadan, be respectful and avoid eating or drinking in public places during this holy month. Also be aware that Saudi society places numerous restrictions on the rights of women, so it is essential to understand the expectations of your hosts.

Business language

Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, but English is widely spoken, particularly in a business environment. As it is a compulsory second language in schools, many Saudis have at least a basic knowledge of English, but it’s still worth getting presentation materials professionally translated. Business cards are usually exchanged during meetings, so it’s useful to have one side of yours printed in Arabic. 

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