- Purchase the complete Expat Arrivals Saudi Arabia Guide (PDF)
Expats anticipating doing business in Saudi Arabia should prepare themselves for a unique experience. The Saudi corporate world is perhaps the most unfamiliar out of the Gulf countries for most Western expats. New arrivals will have to remain flexible and learn new skills in order to make a real success of their time in the country.
The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely spoken and understood in the business world and is the lingua franca between expats. While it's always a good idea to learn at least basic Arabic, many Saudis speak good English.
Hours of business
Saudis generally work from Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being weekend days. Business typically operates from 8am to 12pm and then 4pm to 8pm, with a long midday break to beat the heat.
Business attire in Saudi Arabia is strictly smart and conservative. Men typically wear suits and ties for business meetings, despite the heat. Women should wear clothing that covers at least the shoulders and knees, but further coverage down to the ankles and wrists is better. Clothing should not be tight.
Although it's no longer legally required for expat women to wear an abaya, many businesswomen still prefer to bring one or two along on Saudi business trips. Abayas are always appropriate, so it takes the guesswork out of dressing. A headscarf can also be helpful for blending in.
It is not obligatory to exchange gifts when meeting Saudi business associates for the first time – though it might be appreciated. Gifts should be wrapped and of high quality. Alcohol, knives and pork products should be avoided.
In recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has started taking steps to increase the percentage of women in the workplace. However, women in Saudi Arabia still play a very small role in public life, and even less so in the corporate world. Female expats looking to do business in Saudi Arabia are warned that, over and above potential difficulties in getting work visas, they may be seen as lesser in the business world in Saudi Arabia. This can make it hard to forge the kind of connections that are essential to successful business practice in the region.
Business culture in Saudi Arabia
Importance of Islam
Saudi society is underpinned by the tenets of Islam. Expats, therefore, need to familiarise themselves with the basic guidelines for how to conduct themselves appropriately within Islamic society so as not to cause offence. Those who take the time to understand the values behind some Islamic traditions may also find them more tolerable. Unlike in Western countries, where secularism is generally encouraged, the Islamic faith directly informs social, political, legal and economic institutions in Saudi Arabia.
The business culture of Saudi Arabia is prototypically Arabic. Great emphasis is placed on personal relationships between associates. Saudi businessmen will always prefer to do business with people they are familiar with and who they feel they can trust. For this reason, nepotism is prevalent in the Saudi business world and is viewed as both natural and advantageous.
Establishing personal connections
Expats will also have to remain patient during their first business meetings with new Saudi partners. A significant amount of time will be devoted to getting to know each other before any actual business is conducted. The forging of long-term, personal business relationships in Saudi Arabia shouldn't be rushed and is best considered an investment.
The management style that predominates in Saudi Arabia is paternalistic and strictly hierarchical. Decisions are made at the top level, and clear, direct instructions are then filtered down.
Business etiquette in Saudi Arabia reflects an intimate relationship between spiritual, personal and professional life. When greeting new associates, handshakes are common among men. To show the necessary respect, expats should start with the most senior person present. Physical contact between unrelated men and women in public is frowned upon.
Eye contact is also extremely important in Saudi Arabia and is often considered an indicator of sincerity. However, women should avoid direct eye contact with men they are unfamiliar with.
Attitude to foreigners in Saudi Arabia
There are many differences between Islamic culture and Western culture, but as long as expats conduct themselves appropriately and respect the beliefs and traditions of their hosts, they are likely to be treated warmly and with genuine hospitality while in Saudi Arabia.
Dos and don'ts of doing business in Saudi Arabia
Do remain respectful and observant of Islamic culture and traditions at all times
Do look to cement long-term, personal relationships with Saudi business associates
Do make an effort to engage with the culture – learn some Arabic words and learn about the religion
Don't avoid eye contact with Saudi colleagues when speaking to them
Don't forget that in Saudi Arabia, the line between spiritual, professional and private life is blurry – try to remain sensitive to this in all professional capacities