Saudi Arabia and the United States have a long history of working together well, so it isn’t surprising that you will soon be traveling there for work. However, the extensive history of good relations between these two countries isn’t sufficient to make a good impression on your Saudi colleagues. There are many cultural differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and failing to appreciate these can have an immensely negative impact on your business relationship. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to educate yourself on the rules of etiquette when it comes to Saudi business culture. In this blog, we will go over the most important things to keep in mind when you’re traveling to Saudi Arabia for business.
General Tips About Saudi Business Culture
First of all, keep in mind when you are planning your trip that the Saudi work week is Saturday through Wednesday. Friday is the Muslim holy day so no business is conducted, and most people take Thursday off as well. Another cultural difference that is important to note is the strong influence of religion; it isn’t like the U.S. where there is separation of church and state, so it’s important to be respectful of this element of their culture. In addition, keep in mind that business is conducted at a slower pace than in the U.S. Be patient and don’t try to rush meetings, which will begin with some small talk to establish a rapport.
Another thing to keep in mind is the gender dynamics of the country. Arabic countries think of men and women as completely separate entities. In general, Saudi women do not participate in business. Female business travelers will have to be especially careful about their behavior, and business can be quite difficult for them to conduct. Though they don’t necessarily have to wear veils, conservative dress is key.
In terms of greeting your hosts, follow their lead; there are many different types of greetings in Saudi culture, and it’s best not to guess which is most appropriate. Many Saudi men will shake hands with other men, and some will shake hands with women as well. Keep in mind that family is more important than the individual, so it’s important to show a genuine interest in your colleague’s family. That being said, make sure to only inquire after the male family members, such as uncles, sons, and cousins.
In general, any information that conflicts with Islam isn’t going to go over well, so it’s important to educate yourself on the basic tenets of the religion. If your argument does not align with these beliefs, it will not be accepted as truth. The belief is that the solution to any problem is through the application of divine law, so run any ideas through this perspective. In addition, Saudis tend to be quite enthusiastic in conversation, and often speak loudly to communicate their passion and sincerity. Avoid being too quiet or reserved, which will make your colleagues think there is something wrong. In addition, make sure you are dressed well as this will communicate respect. Finally, it’s typical for meetings to be interrupted in Saudi Arabia, so don’t be put off if friends and family visit or call during your presentation.
When making decisions, your Saudi colleagues will be more motivated by their initial feelings rather than empirical evidence. Saudis are raised to be associative thinkers, so they go with their instincts. That being said, many more Westernized Saudis received their formal education is the U.S. or U.K. and have thus adapted to a more analytical way of thinking in business.
When making conversation with your Saudi colleagues, here are some topics that are great to fall back on, and others that you should avoid.
- Family, though don’t ask about female family members
- Sports—soccer, hunting, and horse and camel racing are all popular, but all betting is illegal
- Saudi Arabia and its cuisine, landmarks, and unique architecture
Topics to Avoid
- Bad luck, death, accidents, and illness
- Anything embarrassing or that could cause embarrassment
Gestures to Avoid
- In Saudi culture, the left hand is considered “unclean,” so use your right hand to eat, touch, or gesture
- Don’t cross your legs or do anything that shows the bottom of your feet
- Don’t point or use a thumbs-up
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