Saudi Arabian Culture

Business Culture

Meetings

  • It is important to show up to appointments on time. People may even arrive early if they are trying to please the person that they are meeting. However, be aware that you may be kept waiting.
  • When first entering a room or greeting your Saudi counterparts for the first time, you should shake hands with everyone from right to left (unless they are of the opposite gender).
  • Professional titles such as ‘Doctor’ or ‘Ustadh’ (teacher) should be used, followed by the person’s first name.
  • Business cards may be exchanged, but are not essential. Receive and pass business cards with your right hand.
  • If the meeting is held at your Saudi counterpart’s office, you can expect to be treated very generously. Tea, coffee and sweets are usually served.
  • The proceedings of Saudi meetings are not very structured. There is rarely a formal agenda or designated chairperson. For example, your Saudi contact may return to a conversation they were having with someone else prior to your meeting, and expect you to wait in the room.
  • Meetings generally start with a considerable amount of small talk and can seem like a constant round of appointments where people are becoming acquainted.
  • Meetings are scheduled around daily prayers and will be paused if they interrupt prayer time. Therefore, it is usually best to make appointments in the morning before the midday prayer or after lunch.
  • There is generally a lack of urgency in business dealings. Decisions are made slowly and can also be overturned easily. Avoid showing frustration or impatience at the process.
  • Be aware that the person asking the most questions is not always the person with the most responsibility. Try to speak directly to the person with the most decision-making power to save time. If they are not present, you can expect that negotiations will take a lot longer as more background conversations will have to be had after.
  • It is advisable to repeat your main points to show your conviction. However, avoid making exaggerated claims. Provide concrete evidence to claims and projections where possible. Saudis are more convinced by figures and calculations that can prove the value of a business venture.
  • Avoid using high-pressure tactics. 
  • Do not openly correct someone or directly criticise someone’s proposal in front of others during a meeting. Take an indirect approach to all corrective remarks to avoid causing offence or embarrassment.


Communication

Try not to be too disheartened if proposals are initially met with criticism. Saudis are often very direct communicators in business settings. They can be quite openly critical if they disagree with another’s opinion or idea. There is generally lots of debate, regardless of whether they like a proposal, as they provide their input to shape it further. This can come across as argumentative. However, consider it is seen simply as a way to achieve the desired outcome. Sometimes criticisms of initiatives can come from a purely conversational place rather than being intended as a serious point.


Relationship Oriented

Personal relationships play a large role in Saudi business culture. Saudis prefer to work with those they know. Face-to-face meetings are ideal. For them, trust is key to good business and so they will be seeking an honest commitment to the relationship from you. Their priority is to expand their networks with partners they can rely on.

 

Considering this, they tend to want to know a great deal about their partners in order to build the confidence and loyalty needed to support business in the future. You may consider many of the details and questions asked to be unrelated to the point at hand. Try to be patient and provide answers for the sake of the business relationship. Show personal interest by asking them similar questions. However, do not ask a Saudi man questions about his female family members. This can be extremely inappropriate.

 

Considerations

  • Be aware that the Saudi working week is from Sunday to Thursday, with the ‘weekend’ falling on Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
  • Business is hierarchical based on age and position. Decisions are made by the highest-ranking person. Respect should be shown to the most senior person at all times.
  • Elders will always be shown heightened respect, even if they are in a lower position within the company.
  • It is not uncommon for key employees to be family members.
  • Consider that some Saudis may view things as being willed by God. This is reflected in the common saying “Inshallah” (If God wills it). Therefore, a deal’s success or failure is thought to be somewhat attributed to God’s plan. Some Westerners hold the view that this fatalistic attitude may cause their Saudi counterparts to have less urgency in business. There may be frequent references to God, the Prophet and sacred texts throughout business dealings.
  • People may agree on contracts and adhere to them on the basis of trust. Saudis generally keep word-of-mouth promises, so be sure you understand what they mean. However, it is still important to secure matters with written contracts.
  • Be prepared to compromise a little in the interest of building a long-term business relationship.
  • Avoid losing your temper. It is unlikely to further negotiations and will possibly make Saudis hesitant of doing business with you. Express any reluctance or disapproval calmly with tact, or in a one-on-one setting.
  • If you offend your business partner, do not ignore the fact that you’ve done so as this will likely jeopardise your relationship. If you are unsure of what to do, it is a good idea to have someone more senior than yourself apologise on your behalf.
  • It is common for Saudi business people to invite their partner to meals in order to build a personal relationship. It is a gesture of good faith in the business relationship that you attend.
  • Be aware that it can be difficult for female representatives and delegates to achieve a great deal if the Saudi business they are dealing with does not have female employees. Women are rarely in positions of power in Saudi businesses.
  • In Saudi Arabia, the notion of ‘baksheesh’ traditionally translates to a “gift” or “gratuity”. However, in business relations, the practice of baksheesh has sometimes been corrupted into a practice of bribery. Therefore, refrain from giving gifts in the business context.
  • On the Corruption Perception Index (2018), Saudi Arabia ranks 58th out of 180 countries, receiving a score of 49 (on a scale from 0 to 100). This perception suggests that the country’s public sector is moderately corrupt.
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