Cultural Tips for Doing Business in the Saudi Arabia

business travel to Saudi Arabia
••• Saudi Arabi. Copyright: edward musiak, flickr, CC 2.0

It’s hard to understate the importance of Saudi Arabia when it comes to Middle Eastern politics and business. The United States has had a long and close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and as a result, many business travelers may find themselves traveling to Saudi Arabia if their company has business there, or relationships with companies that do.

However, as with almost any international business trip, it’s critical for business travelers to understand potential cultural gaps between doing business in a country like Saudi Arabia and doing business back home, in their familiar environment.

The wrong greeting, conversation topic, or habit can have a profound (and potentially negative) impact on business encounters.

That’s why it’s important for any business traveler heading to Saudi Arabia to realize that there may be “hidden” cultural landmines or problems to be aware of if they really want to close the deal or stay on good terms with potential clients or partners.

To help business travelers avoid cultural problems when traveling, I took the time to interview Gayle Cotton, author of the book Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton ( is the author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton is also a distinguished keynote speaker and an internationally-recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. She's President of Circles Of Excellence Inc.

Ms. Cotton has been featured on many television programs, including: NBC News, BBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling to Saudi Arabia.

Of course, it's important for business travelers taking any international trips to be aware of cultural norms where they will be doing business. For a complete look at the different cultural factors that business travelers may encounter, consult my other interview with Ms. Cotton on how business travelers can understand cultural gaps. In addition, Business Travel has a whole series of articles on navigating cultural gaps for different countries, including: Chili, Israel, Australia, Greece, Canada, Denmark, Jordan, Mexico, Norway, Finland, Austria, Egypt and more.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to Saudi Arabia?

  • The Saudi work week runs from Saturday through Wednesday. Most people do not work on Thursday, and there is no business conducted on Friday - the Muslim holy day.
  • Because there are several styles of greetings used in Saudi Arabia, it’s best to wait for your Saudi counterpart to initiate the greeting. Westernized Saudi men usually shake hands with other men, and some Saudi men will shake hands with Western women.
  • In the West status is earned through achievement, however in the Arab world status is determined by class.
  • The pace of business is slower in Saudi Arabia than in the West, so patience is essential. Business meetings start slowly, and there will be initial questions and small talk to create rapport.
  • Saudis will expect you to be sincere, honest, and respectful in all your business dealings. “Saving face” and avoiding shame are very importance, so you may have to compromise on something to protect someone's dignity. It's always best to offer praise rather than criticism
  • In the Saud culture, the individual is always subordinate to the group, and the family is considered the most important social unit.
  • In the West, there is a belief in the separation between Church and state. In Saudi Arabia religion has a profound influence on politics, social behavior, and business.
  • Saudis tend to be unreceptive to outside information that is incompatible with Islamic values, so learn something about the basic tenets of Islam. Their faith in Islamic ideologies shapes their perceptions of the truth. There is a prevailing belief that solutions to problems can be found in the correct interpretation and application of divine law.
  • In the Saudi culture conversations are enthusiastic, and it is normal to speak in a rather aggressive manner to make a point. Speaking loudly, rising the pitch and tone, or even shouting can be perceived as signs of sincerity. If you appear distant, reserved, quiet, or shy, it could make the Saudis think something is wrong.
  • Business is conducted in a personal manner, and it's important to pay close attention to all family members that you are introduced to. Show an interest in the health and happiness of brothers, uncles, cousins, and sons. However, don’t inquire about or mention the female members of the family.
  • There is a tendency among Saudis to use euphemisms to downplay unpleasant facts or to harmlessly embellish the truth. They may be reluctant to give you bad news about business, so keep this in mind if all of the feedback you receive seems unusually positive.
  • It’s important to dress well, extend and receive favors, show respect for elders, and be accommodating in business.
  • Appointments are rarely private occasions, so interruptions from phone calls and visits from your contact's friends and family are to be expected.

What are some good topics for conversation?

  • Family is a good t topic of conversation, however don’t inquire about female members unless they bring it up first
  • Sports, especially soccer (known as "football"), horse and camel racing, hunting and falconry – although keep in mind that all betting is illegal
  • Praise the Saudi landmarks, cuisine, dress, and all aspects of the country that you find appealing
  • The unique and historic architecture of the Saudi culture
  • Periodically ask about the health and happiness of family brothers, uncles, cousins, and sons

What are some conversation topics that are best to avoid?

  • Politics, Israel, illness, accidents, death, or bad luck of any kind
  • Anything that could cause embarrassment or ‘loss of face’
  • The left hand is considered unclean in the Arabic culture, so always use the right hand when touching, eating, or gesturing
  • While sitting keep both feet on the ground, don’t cross your legs, and avoid showing the bottom of your foot which is considered very offensive
  • Although Saudis gesture with their hands while speaking, pointing or using the thumbs-up gesture is considered rude

What is important to know about the decision-making or negotiation process?

  • Often immediate feelings, rather than empirical evidence, are key influences in thinking and decisions. Saudis are brought up to be associative thinkers, however many complete their higher education in the U.K. or the U.S. so they have adapted to thinking conceptually and analytically.
  • When negotiating, Saudis frequently use personalized arguments, appeals, and insistent persuasion, so they will expect a similar approach from you.
  • The male leader is the key decision-maker, however he usually won’t precede until he has the consensus of the group. Leadership and identity arise from one's lineage and ability to protect the honor of the extended family.

Any tips for women?

  • Most Western countries have tried to promote equality between men and women. However, Arabic countries believe that the two sexes are completely different entities. Public life is the exclusive domain of Saudi men, and Saudi women don’t usually participate in the mainstream business world.
  • For female business travelers, the limitations on permissible behavior are highly regulated. Even if granted a visa, conducting business can be quite challenging for a woman. While they will be accepted without veils, they must dress very conservatively.

Any tips on gestures?

  • Saudis tend to stand and sit much closer together than western cultures. When interacting, there is also more physical contact and usually some gestures of touching. Saudi men often walk hand in hand, so if a Saudi holds your hand accept this gesture of friendship.
  • Eye contact is extremely important when speaking to Saudis. It’s advisable to remove your sunglasses and look people directly in the eye.