Saudi Arabian Culture

Etiquette

Basic Etiquette

  • Saudis generally observe a separation between the functions of the hands. This custom is tied to Islamic principles that prescribe the left hand should be used for removal of dirt and for cleaning. It should not be used for functions such as waving, eating or passing items. Therefore, one should gesture, touch people or offer items using both hands together. Using the one hand alone can seem too informal, but if doing so, use the right.
  • Tipping is common in Saudi Arabia, but it is not routine. It is also not required if a service charge is already included in the bill. Saudis usually tip expatriate service people and individual services in hotels despite the overall service charge. For example, it is appropriate to leave $1-2USD for a porter or housekeeper.
  • Punctuality depends on the priority of the occasion. Saudi Arabians generally have a more relaxed approach to time-keeping in casual settings. People do not adhere to tight schedules and are quite tolerant of lateness when meeting with friends. However, punctuality is expected and adhered to in professional settings (see Business Culture). 
  • It is considered rude to check the time whilst in conversation with someone or at a social gathering. Time spent with friends is considered time well spent.
  • Ask permission before taking anyone’s photo or posting it online, especially if they are a woman.
  • Avoid sitting in any position that allows one’s shoe to face another person. This is considered insulting. Similarly, it is inappropriate to cross your legs when facing someone.
  • Try to avoid situations in which you will be left alone with a member of the opposite gender (e.g. elevators, cars). If a woman is in a car alone with a male driver, she may sit in the backseat behind the driver’s seat out of his view.
  • Avoid wearing tight clothes that accentuate the shape of your body or legs. Most Saudis are accustomed to seeing Western clothing. However, it is advisable to ensure your legs, arms and shoulders are covered. Women are recommended to wear a hair/head scarf covering if visiting Saudi Arabia.
  • Pay respect to elderly in all situations. For example, standing up when they enter a room or offering them your seat.
  • It is polite to avoid blowing one’s nose or spitting in public.
  • Casual whistling has suggestive connotations and may be seen as inappropriate depending on the context.
  • Loud aggression and/or drunkenness is looked upon very poorly.

 

Offering and Complimenting Items

  • There is a strong belief in the evil eye in Saudi Arabia whereby one’s misfortune is caused by another’s envy, sometimes taking the form of a curse. Complimenting or praising something too heavily can cause some Saudis to be wary that the evil eye will be jealous of it or curse it. People say “Mashallah” (May God bless) to ward off the evil eye after a compliment and avoid hurting people’s feelings. This phrase comforts people as it lets them know that you are giving an innocent compliment and do not wish harm. Expect to hear it highly frequently in conversation, and say it after every compliment.
  • In Saudi Arabia, people generally extend an offer multiple times. It is often polite to decline gestures initially and accept once the person has insisted. This exchange allows the offering person to show their sincerity in the gesture, and shows the receiver’s humbleness.
  • Be sure to offer everything multiple times in return. If you only offer something once, a Saudi person may respond, “No, it’s okay”, out of modesty and politeness even though they meant to accept on the second offer.
  • Be careful when you compliment an item in a Saudi person’s house, as they may feel compelled to offer it to you as a gift. If they try to give it to you, insist that you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it. A Saudi person is likely to offer the object out of politeness, and if you accept, they may end up giving you something they wished to keep.
  • It is thought to be more sincere if compliments are given out of sight or earshot of the person who owns the possession or thing you are praising.
  • Show gratitude and humility when offered a compliment. This is done by responding with an equally respectful compliment on the same subject. If they are Muslim, you may wish them Allah’s (God’s) blessings.

 

Visiting

Hospitality is highly valued in Saudi Arabian culture. One will generally find that Saudis go to great lengths to ensure their guests feel welcome. See the section on Tribal Identity in Core Concepts for an explanation of traditional Bedouin hospitality.

  • Saudi Arabians have a tendency to display their wealth and materialism in their personal dress, items, homes and hospitality. It is common for people to overdress for events. If a host is not overly generous, guests might be offended or think that the person is ‘cheap’.
  • Saudi Arabians can offer invitations to their homes multiple times and quite early on in a friendship. It is a sign of goodwill to accept.
  • It is inappropriate to invite someone of the opposite gender for a private visit to one’s home without an accompaniment.
  • Unaccompanied men should avoid visiting another Saudi man’s home without giving the family prior notice in case they accidentally intrude on the women of the house.
  • If a Saudi Arabian wishes for an entire family to visit their home, the male head of the family will generally extend the invitation to the other family’s eldest male.
  • Remove your shoes when you enter a Saudi Arabian home (especially on carpeted floors), unless instructed otherwise. 
  • The genders are generally segregated during visits. In Saudi Arabia, many households have two different ‘majlis’ (living room/place of sitting/private place for discussion) so men and women can socialise separately.
  • Once segregated from the men, the women of both families can unveil in front of one another.
  • Men give women notice before entering an area of the house where unrelated women are socialising to give them time to cover up. For example, if a sister has her female friends visiting, her brother will announce “Ya allah!” before he walks in the room.
  • Male guests are usually served by the youngest son or a male domestic worker, while female guests are served by the youngest daughter or a female maid.
  • It is customary to be offered Arabic coffee and dates upon arrival. Coffee is often served in a ‘finjan’ (small cup).
  • It is good to accept any drink offered as a mark of friendship. Refusing a refreshment could create a misunderstanding around the friendship even if you are simply not thirsty.
  • Coffee is followed by a sweet of some kind, usually a mint and/or ginger tea.
  • Hosts will continue to refill guest’s cups until the guest indicates they’ve had enough by covering the mouth of the cup with their hand or gently shaking the cup from side to side and saying “Bas” (Enough).
  • It is improper/unclean for people to drink out of the same cup.
  • Hosts may light ‘Oud’ or agawood (a form of incense or oil) during a guest’s visit.

 

Eating

  • In Saudi Arabia, the consumption of alcohol (and any products containing alcohol) is prohibited for Muslims under Islamic law. It is advisable to abstain from drinking alcohol altogether if you are hosted by Saudi Arabians to avoid potential embarrassment or offence.
  • Pork is also prohibited in Islam. Do not serve food containing pork or pork byproducts (e.g. gelatine) to your Saudi counterpart.
  • It is polite to avoid eating, drinking or smoking in front of a Muslim during the daylight hours of the fasting month of Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia, it is considered disrespectful to engage in these activities in public.
  • Saudis often prepare more food than what their guests will be able to feasibly eat. Hosts often encourage guests to have second helpings and eat more even if they are full.
  • Try to taste all dishes on offer. Not eating very much can be perceived as rude or a sign that the food tastes bad.
  • It is important to wash your hands thoroughly before and after eating.
  • Food can either be served on a large plate set on the floor or on a table.
  • If the meal is on the floor, it is set on a thin plastic sheet (1m x 1m) to protect the carpet from the food. People sit cross-legged or kneel on one knee around the sheet. Keep your feet away from the cloth or plastic sheet.
  • When seated at a table, the most honoured seating position is in the middle of the table. Guests usually sit next to the head of the family. Do not take your seat until the eldest/most senior person has sat down.
  • Older restaurants may have two sections, one for men and one for families (where women and families are seated in a separate, partitioned arrangement). Newer restaurants usually have a mixed-gender open plan, that still provide the option for families to be segregated. A sign out front will indicate whether a restaurant is segregated. If there is no sign, it is usually mixed.
  • People only start eating once the host has said that it is time to begin. This is generally indicated when everyone says “Sahtain” (Good health) or “Bismallah” (in the name of God).
  • It is impolite to begin eating or drinking before the eldest/most senior person has started.
  • Saudi food generally does not require utensils to eat. People use their right hand, scooping with the fingers.
  • Use the right hand to serve and pass any food or dish, in accordance with Islamic custom. The left hand is considered unclean and shouldn’t make direct contact with food.
  • When eating rice, it is normal to form the rice into a small ball before placing it in the mouth. If seated on the floor, rice may drop onto the plastic sheet whilst moving it from the dish to your mouth. This is normal and socially acceptable.
  • Meat is stripped from the bone with the right hand. It is polite to offer other people separate bits of stripped meat.
  • Flat bread is a staple in almost all meals.
  • When the meal is finished, guests can say “Daimah”, meaning ‘may there always be plenty of food on your table’.
  • The main meal may be followed by more tea or coffee and some sweets.
  • Be aware that the time for networking and socialisation comes before the meal is eaten. Once the food has been eaten, guests generally leave very quickly after. Some Saudi men often leave very quickly after the meal is finished.
  • Thank the host directly before getting up from the table.

 

Gift Giving

  • Gift giving is a personal and very common practice throughout Saudi Arabia. However, personal gifts are usually only given by close friends. 
  • It is polite to bring a small gift as a gesture of thanks if invited to a Saudi’s family home (e.g. food items). This should be given as a gesture to the whole family rather than a specific member. It is considered especially inappropriate for men to give individual women gifts, especially those with romantic connotations (e.g. flowers).
  • Avoid giving extravagant or expensive gifts. This can embarrass the recipient, especially if it is given in front of others.
  • When offering a gift, it is likely that the gift will not be opened in front of the giver.
  • Give and pass gifts using the right hand unless the object is too heavy and both hands are required.
  • Saudis may thoroughly examine a gift upon receiving it, remarking on it in admiration to show their appreciation and respect for the giver’s selection.
  • Do not give alcohol, pork, knives, pigskin, perfumes with alcohol or anything that contains a sexualised image of women.
  • Perfume, watches and ‘Oud’ (a form of incense or oil used by Saudis daily) are common and good personal gifts for men. Men should not buy perfume or Oud for a woman unless they are a very close relative. Women may buy Oud for each other.
  • Avoid buying gold or silk clothing items for male Saudis. Wearing these materials goes against Islamic custom. Silver is the most appropriate colour/material to buy for men.
  • Saudis almost always bring gifts for friends and family when they travel, even if they only leave for the weekend. People bring back misak and zamzam water from Mecca, so people know the person has been to Mecca.
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