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Business Etiquette




It is essential for Westerners doing business in the Kingdom to understand Saudi etiquette and the personal manner in which they conduct their business. Preparation, and some basic knowledge of Saudi business culture, can make the difference between a successful business deal and a failed negotiation. It is important to note, however, that a majority of Saudi business executives and government officials have studied and/or worked abroad, many of them in the United States. They are therefore familiar with Western culture and are comfortable with its differing approach to business, provided respect is shown for Saudi customs.

Some Saudi business executives and officials may be reluctant to schedule an appointment until after their visitors have arrived in the Kingdom. Business visitors should inform their Saudi hosts of their travel plans and agenda, but may have better success scheduling a specific meeting once they have arrived in Saudi Arabia. The religious holidays of Ramadan and Hajj and the daily prayer breaks should also be taken into consideration when scheduling business meetings.


Saudi businesses are unlikely to finalize any serious negotiation without such a face-to-face meeting, as doing business in the Kingdom is still mostly personal. Proper attire at business meetings is essential, as it is a sign of respect for the person with whom you are meeting. Conservative business suits are recommended. Business cards exchanged are usually printed in English on one side and Arabic on the other. Meetings are conducted at a leisurely pace, with the parties involved enjoying cordial discussion over coffee and tea. Saudi business executives like to feel comfortable with their business partners before agreements or contracts are signed. This can mean a number of initial meetings where no substantive business is discussed. However, these meetings can be as important as serious business negotiations. Substantial time should be allotted for such business appointments, as they are often long in duration. Saudi business executives are also prone to welcome visitors and outside phone calls during such meetings; a lack of privacy is not uncommon in personal appointments. Confidentiality is likely to increase when it comes time to actually finalize an agreement.

Saudi custom regarding greetings is rather ritualized. When entering a meeting full of people, a Saudi will greet each person individually with a handshake while standing. The same is expected of visitors. Learning some appropriate Arabic phrases for such occasions is appreciated.

In Arabic, an individual is addressed by his or her first name, and any title they possess. A "Dr. Ahmed Bin Al-Rahman" would be addressed as "Dr. Ahmed." The word "bin" or "ibn" means "son of" and may be present a number of times in a person’s name, as Saudi names are indicators of genealogy. Another common name structure is having "Abd" followed by an attribute of God with the definite article "al-." Hence, "Dr. Abd-Al-Rahman Al-Hajj" would be addressed as "Dr. Abd Al-Rahman" and not as "Dr. Abd" or "Dr. Abd Al." Saudi ministers are always addressed as "Your Excellency" and members of the royal family as "Your Highness."

Many Saudi business executives have an impressive history of trade experience, experience with the West, and a command of the English language. They prepare carefully for meetings and have a good grasp of the important details surrounding negotiations, relying more heavily on memory than on papers and notes. The Arab people are very hospitable and will go to great lengths to make guests feel welcome and comfortable. Foreign business executives can expect to be served first and will be ushered first through doorways. If an invitation is extended to a Saudi colleague for a meal or coffee, it is customary for the person who issued the invitation to pick up the bill. Some Saudis will decline an offer at least one time out of politeness.

When engaged in conversation, Saudis tend to stand much closer to one another than Americans, North Europeans, and East Asians do. Their conversational distance is more similar to that of Latin Americans and Southern Europeans. Arabs will also employ some body contact to emphasize a point or confirm that they have your attention. It is important not to draw back, however. This may be interpreted as a rebuff or rejection of what is being said. Respect is a value that is held very highly by the Arab people, and this shows in both business and social settings.

Various social customs are well known in the Kingdom. Arabs traditionally use the right hand for all public functions — including shaking hands, eating, drinking, and passing objects to another person. Talking with one’s hands, or gesticulating wildly, may be considered impolite. It is also impolite to point the sole of the foot at the person to whom you are speaking. It may be discourteous to ask about a man’s wife and daughters. One should ask after his "family and children." When tea and coffee are served, it could be considered impolite not to take at least one cup. When one is finished drinking, one should oscillate the cup to signal that a refill is not desired. If one is doing business in the Kingdom during Ramadan, it is best to refrain from drinking and eating when in the company of someone observing the fast.

Doing business in Saudi Arabia is somewhat more challenging for women. There is gender separation in the Kingdom. Many public places, like hotels and restaurants, will have family rooms where women are served with their husbands. Women are expected to dress conservatively, with long skirts most appropriate, sleeves at elbow length or longer, and necklines that are unrevealing. It is generally uncommon for a Muslim man to shake hands with a woman or engage in the conversational body contact that is common when speaking to another man, although Saudis who have experience with Western culture may be inclined to do so.




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