Saudi Arabia: Culture
This guide to business culture and etiquette in Saudi Arabia is courtesy of Executive Planet
An Introduction to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Government, economy, and climate
Perhaps no other country in the Middle East is as misunderstood by the average westerner as is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [colloquially referred to as, “the Kingdom,” not “Saudi Arabia” alone]. The most likely reason is courtesy! To the Saudis, good manners are all important, meaning that they are far too polite to embarrass an offender by pointing out his social gaffes. To make matters even more difficult, Saudi and western concepts of courtesy can be precise opposites. In the west, for example, it is very polite for a man to hold a door for a lady, or at least allow her to pass first. The same gesture is offensive by Saudi standards because the man puts himself in a position to ogle the woman from behind.
Government and Economy
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, united by King Abdulaziz bin Abdurrhaman bin Saud Al Saud (known as "ibn Saud" in the west), who died in 1953. The present Monarch is his ninth son to survive him, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Crown Prince is the King¹s half-brother, HRH Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz (also Minister for Defence and Aviation). The economy is oil-based, revenue from which has substantially been invested in agriculture and some industry with the objective of overall self-sufficiency for the Kingdom. Currency is the Saudi Riyal, which now trades freely but until recently was tied to the U.S. dollar at a rate of SR 3.75 to the dollar.
Most of the Kingdom is in the tropics. The Tropic of Cancer runs through Medina, about 300 miles north of Jeddah. The interior, including the capital, Ar-Riyadh, is mainly desert, where there is little humidity but a vast range of temperature from below freezing nights in winter to 50° C daytime temperatures in summer. Although the desert extends to both the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea coasts, those areas are much more humid, sometimes exceeding 100% in the Gulf. The Red Sea coast is somewhat less humid than the Gulf but the moisture limits both coasts to an overall temperature range of just some 25 degrees [from slightly below twenty to the low forties]. Rainfall throughout the Kingdom is very slight, except for the Asir [the extreme southwest, bordering the Yemen], owing to its proximity to the monsoon belt. Unlike the rest of the Kingdom, this makes the mountainous Asir a green and fertile region.
Entrance requirements and religion
Entering the Kingdom
Nationals of all countries outside the Gulf Co-operation Council require visas, which [apart from pilgrimage visas] must be sponsored. Traditionally, the sponsor had to apply to the Saudi Foreign Ministry, who would then contact the traveller through the Saudi Embassy of his nationality [not his country of residence, if different]. At the time of writing, procedure is being changed to allow the traveller to apply through the embassy. Any Saudi national can sponsor a visa and the visitor can change sponsors if dissatisfied, although such a change usually entails a return to his home country. It is wise, therefore, to select a sponsor who is well connected but easily available. By this standard, lawyers [there is no difference between barristers and solicitors in the Kingdom] make particularly good sponsors. Before the visitor can depart the Kingdom, his sponsor must arrange an exit permit as well as whatever extensions may have been required in the interim. In order to control pilgrimage numbers, only non-Muslims are eligible for business visas between Ramadhan and the Hajj. Muslims must travel on pilgrimage visas during those months. Remember that the months specified in a visa are lunar months of 29/30 days each according to the Hijri [Islamic] calendar.
Islam governs everything in the Kingdom. Pork, intoxicants and pornography are forbidden. Non-Muslims are barred from Mecca and Medina, and generally unwelcome as visitors to mosques elsewhere. There is no civil code of law and Shari'ah [Islamic law] requires that the murderer or drug dealer be beheaded, the adulterer stoned, the fornicator flogged and the habitual thief have his right hand amputated--albeit never on the basis of circumstantial evidence for any of these offences. Blood money for accidental killing [e.g. in a road accident] is also legally enforceable. The result is a generally peaceful, well-ordered society.
Public morality is the responsibility of the Mutawa. Often referred to as the religious police, this is a misnomer because they have the power only to report, not to arrest.
As police often patrol with them, however, a report can promptly be converted into an arrest. Their main day-to-day function is not to harass foreigners but merely to ensure that shops close at prayer times. Exact prayer times vary with the season, but the five daily prayers are as follows: Fajr [between dawn and sunrise], Dhuhr [about half an hour after mid-day], Asr [mid-afternoon], Maghrib [immediately after sunset] and Isha' [from an hour and a half after sunset]. The dawn to dusk fast in Ramadhan is also legally enforced and those violating it in public are subject to imprisonment and deportation. As the Hijri calendar is lunar, Ramadhan [as well as all other months] advances an average eleven days per year against the Gregorian calendar. There are only two annual bank holidays in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one immediately following Ramadhan and the other immediately after the Hajj. Each is officially one day but, for practical purposes extends to three.
Generally, businesses in the Kingdom open at about nine in the morning, close for Dhuhr prayer, open afterwards for half an hour or so, close for the afternoon and then re-open for the hours from five to ten pm [closing for Maghrib and Isha' prayers during these hours].
Government offices and banks open an hour or so earlier with the former not re-opening in the evening and the latter closing finally after Isha' prayer. Government offices are open Saturday to Wednesday, inclusive. Banks are open Thursday mornings as well and most retail businesses observe a seven-day working week.
As in the west, the basic working week is 5 _ days, save that the week begins on Saturday instead of Monday.
The importance Saudis attach to courtesy and hospitality can cause delays that prevent keeping to a strict schedule. It is therefore customary to make appointments for times of day rather than precise hours.
Although prayer times vary around the year, current ones are always printed in the daily newspapers.
To say “between Maghrib and Isha” is more common and practical than to specify 6 or 7 o'clock.
As it is exceptional for meetings to span a prayer time, one can usually rely on punctuality for appointments immediately after prayers. Add to that the universal advantage of booking the first appointment in the morning and one should comfortably be able to schedule a minimum of three daily appointments.
Whenever possible, however, it is better not to book an appointment but merely turn up on the off chance. If you already know the person, you would be expected to pay an impromptu social call whenever in the area anyway. Of course this works both ways, so that one must be prepared to tolerate others popping in to eavesdrop on his own business as well. Within reason, the higher the level, the better this works. A minister's diary is likely to be full well ahead, but by going around and being prepared to wait, there is a good chance of exploiting an unanticipated gap between appointments. It is always a good idea, however, to take along a letter that you can leave with the man's secretary should you not see him.
Unlike in the west, Saudi secretaries do not normally have authority to make appointments for their bosses.
At higher levels [rarely below the rank of deputy-minister], what might be called coffee protocol enables keeping to schedule. On arrival, a coffee-bearer is summoned, who pours thin, cardamom-flavoured Saudi coffee from a large brass dallah into thimble cups. Three cups are the normal polite limit but he will keep pouring until the visitor shakes his empty cup to signal he has had enough. The man then leaves and discussion begins.
As always, familiarisation chitchat precedes business.
If the coffee bearer is summoned a second time, it is a polite indication that time is short. The visitor should accept more coffee but not linger more than five minutes afterwards. To do so would be blatantly to overstay his welcome. This applies, however, only to the service of Saudi coffee from a dallah. Ordinary tea by the glass or Turkish coffee by the demitasse as normally served in offices carries no such import.
Guidelines for business dress
The only absolute requirement of dress code in the Kingdom is modesty. For men, this means covering everything from navel to knee. Short sleeves are therefore acceptable but not short trousers.
Anything with a waistband makes one feel unnecessarily warm in an already hot climate. Not only is local garb more practical, most Saudis take the concession to custom of wearing it as a cultural compliment. Apart from undergarments [pants, vest and skull cap], the ensemble consists of three items; thobe [body garment], ghuttera [head scarf] and aqal [head rope].
A good quality mishla [gold-edged woollen cloak] for wear at important social functions is a reasonable, though relatively expensive, investment.
Whilst the female dress code requires covering everything except the face, hands and feet in public, a woman can wear literally anything she wants providing she covers it with an abaya [standard black cloak] and headscarf when she goes out.
Welcome topics of conversation
It is the position of the host to set the subject of conversation at the outset. He will normally begin with platitudes [How are you?, How are you enjoying your visit?, etc.]. If others were present before your arrival, he will tell you the subject of prevailing conversation and invite you to contribute. Be forthcoming but always polite. Intelligent argument is admired and welcome but only when it is courteous and reasoned. Argue as appropriate but never quarrel. The more feedback you provoke, no matter how forceful so long as it is not angry, the more highly you are esteemed.
If alone with your host, platitudes may continue a bit longer, such as questions about your home country. Assuming the host respects you, however, you will soon be asked your opinions about controversial issues. Politics [particularly international politics] and religion are favourite topics. If you genuinely agree with your host, he may take some convincing about your sincerity. Do not, therefore, be afraid to disagree but, having made your point, give him the opportunity for rebuttal. The object of the exercise is not to win a debate but, rather, to probe each other's thoughts and thereby enlighten one another. A conversation from which one learns nothing is a waste of time.
Addressing others with respect
The use of first names denotes more familiarity than in the west and there is no real equivalent to Mister, although the Saudis borrow the Hashemite noble title “Sayyed” for this purpose in correspondence.
“Bin” [or ben or ibn], preceding a name, particularly a middle name, means “son of.” “Bint” [daughter of] is the female form.
The perfect level of friendliness without undue familiarity is achieved by the use of the kunya. A man becomes known to his friends as “Abu” [father of], followed by the name of his [usually eldest] son. It is quite acceptable to ask a mutual acquaintance if you don't know a man's kunya. Somewhat less common is the female equivalent “Umm” [mother of].
Just as in most western monarchies, Saudi Princes are addressed as His/Your Royal Highness [Samu Maliki]. Similarly, non-royal ministers and ambassadors have the standard international designation of “Excellency.”
Several years ago, King Fahed abandoned the style of Majesty in favour of “Khadam al-Haramain ash-Sharifain.” This translates to “Steward of the Two Noble Sanctuaries” but is often very badly rendered “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in English.
The titles Doctor, Shaikh [chief], Mohandas [engineer] and Ustadh [professor] are used, as on the Continent, in both the literal and honorific senses. “Shaikh” should always be used the same as a knighthood in English--applied only to the first name, never the surname.
Selecting and presenting an appropriate business gift
Gifts should only be given to the most intimate of friends. For a Saudi to receive a present from a lesser acquaintance is so embarrassing as to be offensive. It is not unheard-of for an employee returning from leave to get the sack for the impertinence of bringing his boss a present from home. Even worse is expressing admiration for something belonging to another because it makes him feel obliged to make a gift of it.
If one is confident enough and determined to give a gift, it must be the best affordable. A carpet must, for example, be handmade even though most Saudis buy machine made carpets for themselves. Never, however, buy gold jewellery or silk garments for men, as both are deemed effeminate in Islam. Platinum is most acceptable but, as it can be confused with white gold, silver is safer, provided it is properly hallmarked by a government authority [as opposed to merely bearing a maker's mark]. As a gesture of respect, the recipient is likely to open and minutely examine the gift in the presence of the giver as well as any others who happen to be present. Nothing is worse than having him search in vain for a hallmark or, worse yet, turn a carpet over to find a loose weave or indistinct design on the reverse.
Owing to the extremely personal nature of giving gifts, traditional perfume is usually the most appreciated. Just as in Europe a man displays his status by his tailoring, so in Arabia he does so by his scent. The most generally preferred male scent [perfume should be given to women only by other women or close relatives] is oud, which is a distillation of aloes wood, but be careful. The best quality costs well over £1,000 an ounce and the naïve buyer can easily be deceived by synthetics which cheat him of his money and cause him to forfeit the esteem of the one to whom the scent is given. The same is true of incense, costing per kilogram roughly the same as an ounce of its extract. Before giving any scent, use it first and consider giving it only to those who express admiration for your taste.
What you should know before negotiating
Greetings and Negotiating Etiquette
The standard greeting is “As-salam alaikum,” [peace be upon you] to which the standard reply is “Wa alaikum as-salam,” [and upon you be peace]. On arrival at the reception room, the visitor should stand in the doorway and utter the former of these phrases. Only after receiving the reply is he entitled to enter. In the event of no reply, he may repeat the greeting but continued failure to reply means that he is not welcome.
If the room is carpeted, the visitor should remove his shoes and leave them outside to avoid bringing in impurities and thereby rendering the carpet ritually unclean for prayer. Once inside the room, he should shake hands with the most senior person first [usually but not invariably the host]. Then he should make his way around the room in an anti-clockwise direction, shaking hands with each person in turn before taking his seat and joining in the conversation.
The visitor should not change the subject of conversation except by logical opportunity or invitation. If there are more than fifty or so people in the room or if the seating is inconvenient, there may be consensus permission for him merely to shake hands with the host and wave a greeting to the others.
Once seated, crossing legs is perfectly acceptable, provided one does not direct the sole of the foot to an individual, which is a “go away” gesture. Whenever two men arrive at the same doorway, the one on the right always goes first, regardless of respective rank.
Business Cards and Promotional Literature
Business cards are common but not essential in the Kingdom. If used they should be in Arabic. Common practice is to have English and Arabic printed one on each side [this way, neither language is then perceived as less important by being on the reverse] of the same card. If one prefers the elegance of an engraved card, however, it is equally acceptable to have both languages on the same side or a separate card for each language.
Brochures and other promotional literature should always be printed in Arabic, either with or without an English translation.
Pace of Business
Business proceeds at two rates in the Kingdom--snail's pace and light speed. There seems to be nothing in between, which discourages foreigners by making it impossible to judge progress until work is in hand. After several lengthy but fruitless visits, the western businessman may suddenly arrive to find his work required “overnight.” Negotiations must therefore be swift, but not necessarily easy.
Bargaining, negotiating, and contacts
Bargaining and Negotiating
Until the discovery of oil, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia produced nothing. There was no industry, only trading. Over the centuries, this merchant culture produced the shrewdest bargainers in the world. Even in Saudi daily life, it is customary to bargain for virtually everything except newspapers and postage stamps.
Such things as airfares and hotel rates are fair game and a discount of less than 20% can be deemed an insult [hence the reason the national carrier eschews an air miles scheme]. To the Saudi it is fun. Only when the visitor is imbued with the same sense of fun will he stand a fair chance. Shari'ah provides one last sting.
An agreement is final when and only when the participants part. So long as they are together, it can be unilaterally abrogated even, in theory, if duly signed and witnessed.
The Kingdom of Saudi is one enormous old boys' club. On a given level, everybody seems to know everybody else. Unlike in western Monarchies, there is no peerage but there is a commercial aristocracy comparable to the American industrial dynasties.
Contrary to their American counterparts, however, Saudi merchant princes are not at all self-centred and, therefore, are relatively easily accessible.
There are perhaps half a dozen such families in each region of the Kingdom who intermarry so that an introduction to one can be an introduction to all. Nonetheless, caution is advised because there are also the nouveau riche, whom these families shun as upstarts.
Entertaining for business success
Saudis habitually entertain at home but, as a concession to western custom, they will often accept a foreigner's invitation to a hotel or restaurant.
Regardless of who is host, hospitality is merely a courtesy and should not be interpreted as a harbinger of commercial success. In fact, lavish hospitality often serves to soften the letdown of an unsuccessful venture.
A Saudi's concern for helping one save face can border on hypocrisy, as when he publicly greets with particular warmth a man he dislikes. The opposite can also be true, so that being treated in an off-hand manner could be a backhanded compliment, interpreted as, “We are such good friends that I needn't be on my good behaviour with you!” The death knell to beware, however, is “Let's keep in touch.”
When the visitor is entertaining in a restaurant or hotel, tipping is the same as in Europe; ten percent over and above the service charge if merited. Also as in most of Europe, it is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
Not only is it improper to eat with the left hand, it should be reserved only for unclean usage. To offer someone something by the left hand is most rude.
Sharing a meal is the universal best way for people to get to know one another. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, particularly the Hejaz or Western Province, this usually manifests itself in an Anglo/Japanese sense of humour based on practical joking, double meanings and sexual absurdity.
Also like the English and Japanese, the Saudis prefer understatement and deplore exaggeration in normal conversation. Similarly, they appreciate genuine praise but abhor gratuitous flattery. Women are sacrosanct but all other subjects of conversation are acceptable provided the visitor demonstrates an open mind. Saudis tend to respect a man with a firm grasp of his argument.
Acceptable public conduct
Although women are active in most, if not all five of the professions as well as such commercial activities as banking and some retail trade, they do not drive cars or travel alone and social encounters are segregated. Within same-sex encounters, however, the normally reserved Saudis are much more tactile than westerners in their behaviour.
Whilst loud speech and raucous laughter are deplored as vulgar, firm embraces, kissing on both cheeks and walking hand-in-hand are customary. These are gestures of close, brotherly friendship and have no sexual implications whatever.
At the very least, Saudis always shake hands with every man present but not with women. If a man knows a woman well enough to touch her at all, he knows her well enough to kiss her [e.g. blood relatives]. The respectful greeting for Saudi Royalty is to kiss the shoulder.