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Saudi Arabia business etiquette: Guide for expat business owners

Saturday November 26, 2022

Saudi Arabia is a growing international economic force, and not just in the oil sector, which has traditionally been its major industry. The economy is diversifying and increasingly attracting overseas entrepreneurs to set up their businesses in the country.

But, as with every country, Saudi Arabia and its people have their own customs and ways of doing business, which overseas businesspeople need to be conscious of.

Our guide elaborates on some of the major points that businesspeople need to consider when seeking to make the best impression. Topics include:

• What to wear
• Titles
• Business cards
• Meetings
• Negotiating
• Management
• Personal space
• Gift giving
• Dining and food
• Taboos
• How Creative Zone can help

What to wear

For business meetings, men are expected to dress smartly, so suit and tie are the order of the day. These should be in conservative colours. In the summer months, when it can get very hot, it is acceptable to take the jacket off, but it should still be with you.
Women should wear conservative business attire, in muted colours. It is also recommended to have a pashmina or scarf with you. Remember, other than hands and face, skin should remain covered. In terms of footwear, heels should be kept to a minimum.
Note that while it may be tempting to attend business meetings in local dress, it will look odd, so it is recommended to wear your usual business attire.

Titles

Addressing someone by their correct title is important in Saudi Arabian society. In business, titles generally relate to their rank, role in the company and family, among others. Saudi people are usually addressed by their titles, such as chairman, doctor, professor or your highness. People in specific professions, such as engineering or education, also tend to use titles.
You will be able to quickly learn a person’s title by how they introduce themselves to you or by how other people address them. As someone from outside Saudi Arabia, you will generally be addressed as Mr/Mrs followed by your first name.

Business cards

It is traditional to exchange business cards when attending a business meeting, but it is not done with any ceremony. The cards don’t play a significant role in a meeting, but they can be useful to get some initial information about the person you are meeting.
Having one side of your business card written in Arabic is appreciated, but it isn’t a requirement.

Meetings

There are a variety of rules and customs that dictate how business meetings in Saudi Arabia are arranged and conducted.
For instance, appointments to meet a Saudi business contact should be made up to a month in advance. It is also common for meetings to be arranged in the morning.

If you want to meet with government officials, a date won’t be confirmed until you have arrived in Saudi Arabia.
It is important to be punctual to business appointments, but be prepared to wait for the meeting to begin, as it is customary to keep foreigners waiting.

When you are called into the meeting, it will usually begin with a lengthy conversation about health, family and such like. This is all part of the process for people in Saudi Arabia to build trust and develop a relationship, so it should be indulged.

After this, don’t expect the meeting to run tightly to an agenda – Saudis tend not to stick to them. While it can make meetings seem haphazard, the main issues will all be covered.

In addition, especially if you are meeting someone for the first time, don’t be surprised if your meeting is interrupted by others coming in and talking about another topic entirely. Meetings in Saudi Arabia are not considered private until a relationship of trust has been established between the parties.

Negotiating

Negotiating in any business setting can be a delicate process, and Saudi Arabia is no different in this respect. Here are some pointers to ensure the meetings go smoothly.

First, be aware that decisions are not arrived at quickly – and Saudis are tough negotiators – so patience is a virtue. Saudi society is bureaucratic and hierarchical, so many decisions need to go through several stages of approval – with the final decision made by the highest-ranking person available – so it can take several meetings to make even relatively simple decisions. But don’t be tempted to try and hurry the process, as it will not be appreciated – neither are high-pressure sales techniques.

In negotiations, it is a good idea to repeat the main tenets of your argument as that shows you are speaking the truth.
When negotiating prices, Saudis tend to make very low opening bids when they are buying – but very high when they are selling, so be prepared to make several offers before a price is agreed. But also be aware that decisions can be overturned.

Compromise is also something you should be prepared to do, especially if someone’s dignity is on the line.

Management

There is a clear management culture in Saudi Arabia. Managers will make decisions, while those working under them will follow orders. Managers will decide after consulting with major stakeholders first, and it will be then down to their staff to carry out that decision.
When meeting with managers, it is advisable to agree on a deadline and then emphasise the importance of sticking to it.

Personal space

When meeting people professionally, it is also useful to know the culture regarding personal space. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, people are comfortable being in close quarters with each other, whether in public or at meetings. However, when men are meeting women, they will keep more of a distance and avoid eye contact if they are interacting with someone who is not a relation.

Gift giving

In business, it is common to give gifts when attending a meeting in Saudi Arabia. Items such as pens, USB stick and prayer beads are commonly given.

If you are invited to a business contact’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift as a thank you for their hospitality, such as sweets or dates, or flowers for the hostess.

Dining and food

If you are invited for a meal, there are certain customs you should be aware of. For instance, if the meal is served on the floor, you should sit cross-legged or kneel – but ensure your feet are not on the cloth or sheet the food is served on.

When eating, only use your right hand – the left is considered unclean. If you want to use a fork, ask for one.

If you are an honoured guest, you may be offered the most prized foods, such as a sheep’s head. You should also try a little of all dishes that are served – there is usually more food served that can be eaten, but that is all part of Saudi hospitality.

Eating will mostly be done in silence so that diners can concentrate on and appreciate their food. Don’t forget to wash your hands before and after you have eaten – eateries will provide washing facilities.

Taboos

As in all cultures, there are certain things which are taboo, so be aware of these and avoid the possibility of causing offence.
For instance, showing the soles of your shoes is offensive, as is pointing at people – you should gesture with a flat hand.

You should also not speak critically of the Saudi royal family, a person’s family or their religion.

Public displays of affection should not be made. Likewise, sex should not be discussed.

How Creative Zone can help

This article shows the nuances in Saudi society, but negotiating these successfully can help to ensure your business dealings are successful.

Meanwhile, if you require help establishing a business, Creative Zone are experts in business setup in Dubai and are equally adept at helping business owners in Saudi Arabia. Creative Zone’s concierge team can help at every step to set up your business and ensure the process is as smooth as possible.

For more information and a bespoke quote, contact Creative Zone today: www.creativezone.ae/contact-us/


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