8 Do’s and Don’ts of Saudi Business Etiquette

Business etiquette in Saudi Arabia requires calm and considerate negotiation; trying to rush decisions will often backfire. When working in the Kingdom, be sure to dress correctly, greet your business partners in an agreed-upon way, and steer clear of potentially divisive topics while making small talk.
saudi arabia national flag
Saudi Arabia National Flag

When working in Saudi Arabia, it is crucial to understand the business culture. Though there are cross-overs with the way things work in the western world, there are also major differences as well.

In this article, I’ll walk you through 8 key Saudi Arabia business etiquette to keep in mind while working with them and how to make the most of your business opportunities.

1. Dress Code

One of the most important parts of business culture in Saudi Arabia is the dress code. Western expats should note that presentation is very important to business people in the Kingdom – you should always dress smart and professionally when doing business dealings in Saudi Arabia.

For male expats, this means wearing similar business attire to what is common in western culture – a nice shirt, suit, tie, and formal shoes will serve you well. All women need to wear an abaya, which is a traditional black cloak; however, foreign women do not need to wear a headscarf.

Western women should respect the conservative dress codes of the middle east; low necklines, short skirts, and other revealing clothing will be frowned upon.

Local men should wear a national dress when meeting business partners – a white thobe, red and white checked ghutra for men, and a headscarf for women.

2. Communication

Reading body language is a very important skill for expatriates to develop during their first time in the business world of Saudi Arabia. It is not common practice for proposals to be rejected verbally – instead, you must learn to pick up on the non-verbal cues of Saudi society.

Small talk is an important first step when developing business relationships with Saudi businesspeople. During your initial meetings, expect topics to include sports, art and culture, and potentially some personal questions regarding families.

It is very important to avoid topics that might be considered ‘taboo’: religion, politics, and the royal family are best steered away from. If you wouldn’t want it brought up at the table at Thanksgiving, it’s best not to bring it up in Saudi Arabian business meetings!

However, if you wish to ingratiate yourself with your Saudi counterpart, offering some non-controversial and positive thoughts on Saudi culture and achievements is likely to go down well!

3. Meetings & Greetings

Successful business meetings in Saudia Arabia always start with handshakes. Every man in the room should be greeted with eye contact and a good handshake – start with the most senior person, and shake hands in order of hierarchy.

If there are businesswomen present, allow them to lead the greeting. If they extend their hand to you, shake it; if they do not, don’t try and prompt one yourself. A polite verbal greeting will suffice.

Meetings will be held in English if foreigners are present; however, your partners may switch to Arabic when discussing finer details and important points.

4. Business Cards

Business cards are still an important part of Saudi business dealings – perhaps more so than is now common in the western world. When exchanging them, always do so with the right hand.

If you are visiting Saudi Arabia for business, and especially if you are attending any convention, be sure to take more cards than you might expect!

5. Decision-Making Hierarchy

The hierarchy of a business is very important to how business decisions are made in Saudi Arabia. Because of this very bureaucratic style, don’t be surprised if relatively small decisions take multiple meetings to accomplish.

Managers and other high-up staff members are the only ones who make decisions; if you are dealing with a subordinate, they will have to go away and get approval on whatever you discuss.

Pro Tip: Saudi has a Corruption Perceptions Index score of 51 out of 100. While this is not particularly low (a score of 0 means highly corrupt), it indicates that some corruption is present, so stay on your toes while dealing with high-up staff.

6. Negotiation

Meeting and negotiation with the Arab
Meeting and negotiation with the Arab

Negotiation is a very important part of Arab business culture. These negotiations are slower and more measured than the type we are used to in the western world – don’t try to rush the process, as it will only cause you more difficulties.

Saudis tend to be relatively demanding with their negotiation style – meaning if they are selling, their first price will be very high, and if they are buying, their first offer will be very low. Don’t be offended or shocked; this is part of the process.

Equally, don’t try to use high-pressure, aggressive tactics to get what you want. These will not be received well, most likely leading to negotiations breaking down.

When negotiating, be prepared to repeat your most important points multiple times. This will not come across as boring or repetitive but consistent, demonstrating that what you say is trustworthy.

7. Working Hours

For a country with such strict etiquette rules, it can be confusing for foreign visitors to understand timekeeping in Saudi Arabia. Punctuality is not as important in the middle east as it is in Europe and the States; it is not uncommon for meetings to start late or be cancelled at the last minute.

If you can, try to schedule your meetings in the morning. Always make sure you arrive on time, but be expected to be kept waiting – this is customary, especially when dealing with foreigners.

If you’re dealing with a high-up member of staff, it is likely that meetings will consistently be interrupted by phone calls and questions. Don’t take this as rude – it is simply a part of the culture. Sit politely and continue when your business partner is once again free.

Working weeks are capped at 48 hours by law, and hours are often scheduled around prayer times. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslim workers only work 30 hours a week.

Friday is the holy day in Islam and Saudi Arabia – hence, the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday.

8. Gift Policy

Gift-giving is not standard practice in Saudi business dealings, so don’t feel the need to shower your business partners with gifts to try and win them over.

If you do end up providing a gift, make sure you pass it over with your right hand, never your left hand.

What is considered rude in Saudi Arabia?

A few cultural faux pas are best avoided when doing business in the middle east. Most Saudis will forgive the occasional minor mistake, as they understand the culture is very different, but try not to make it a repeated habit.

Things that are best avoided entirely include:

  • Never argue openly with your host
  • Don’t raise your voice – stay soft-spoken at all times
  • Never show the soles of your feet
  • Never eat with your left hand – only the right hand should be used for food

What is the business culture in Arab Saudi? (Quick Summary)

Prepared for heavy negotiationBe aggressive or raise your voice while negotiating
Ready to have multiple meetingsRush decisions or negotiations
Arrive on timeExpect your meetings to happen on time
Dress smart, and obey local dress codesShake hands with a woman who does not initiate the handshake
Be positive and polite about Saudi cultureInsult Saudi culture, or bring up controversial topics

Jack Fairey

Jack is a writer based in west London, England. He is a keen traveler, and has a particular interest in the fascinating differences in etiquette across the world. When not writing, he can be found dreaming up his next trip to far off places.

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