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Guide to business etiquette in Saudi Arabia

Article-Guide to business etiquette in Saudi Arabia

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Adhering to etiquette in Saudi Arabia is fundamental for successful business relationships.

As the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) continues its dynamic transformation, travellers from around the region are visiting the country to seize new opportunities. In Q1 2023, the influx of tourists to Saudi Arabia increased steeply from 2.5 million in 2022 to an incredible 7.8 million. This surge in tourism presents a golden opportunity for business, however, it is vital to know the country’s traditions to avoid any inadvertent breaches of etiquette.

Cultural awareness in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country with a rich Muslim heritage, and its business culture reflects these Islamic traditions. When visiting, remember to show respect for local customs and be careful not to schedule meetings during prayer times or religious holidays.

Be considerate of dress codes and modest behaviour. At meetings, men should wear suits with long-sleeved shirts, ties, and polished shoes and be well-groomed. Women should avoid tight-fitting clothes and dress in loose-fitting, ankle-length dresses, skirts or trousers. Blouses with long sleeves and high necklines are recommended. It is always advisable to err on the side of conservatism. Women may also wish to carry a cardigan to ensure their arms can be covered.

Healthcare professionals also follow modest dress codes aligned with cultural values. White lab coats are worn, and females tend to wear longer sleeves and higher necklines. Women may also wear a coordinated hijab or headscarf to ensure cultural sensitivity. Regardless of gender, it is important to maintain a neat, professional appearance, avoid excessive accessories or loud clothing, and keep makeup and perfume subtle.

Building business relationships

Developing relationships and connections are important in Saudi business culture. Taking the time to become acquainted with Saudi counterparts can have a positive impact and help drive results. However, building relationships can also take a considerable amount of time. If you are invited to socialise outside of work, perhaps at a dinner, it is advisable to accept the invitation.

Socialising and networking are common and can help strengthen these relationships. Important business negotiations can take time as they may involve consultations with top executives who have the decision-making power. It is imperative to build strong relationships and respect the hierarchy. Being patient is key, so be prepared for extended discussions and avoid rushing the process.

Adapt to the market

Existing brand strategies may fall short of connecting with the Saudi audience. With this in mind, companies entering the market may benefit from taking a slightly different approach. For example, companies could craft new branding and fresh content that appeals more to the country’s cultural values. Being adaptable and proactive mitigates the risk of unintentionally offending the target audience.

The working week

While many countries follow a Monday-to-Friday working week, Saudi Arabia operates differently — Friday and Saturday are their weekend days. This can be a challenge, so be mindful when scheduling business meetings with individuals from Saudi Arabia and other global regions.

Formal greetings

Greetings in Saudi Arabia are normally formal and polite. Use titles when addressing individuals, especially when meeting the person for the first time. Handshakes are also common in a business environment, but they may be less firm than in Western cultures. Only shake hands with a female if the woman extends her hand first.

Flexible meeting times

Punctuality is held in high regard when doing business around the world, however, meetings in Saudi can start later than the scheduled time. A good tip is to always be patient and, in case there is a delay, be understanding. It is advisable to arrive on time regardless and use the waiting period to socialise or network with others.

Gifts and hospitality

Offering gifts such as perfume, watches and ‘oud’, a type of incense, is common practice in Saudi Arabia. Although men should avoid gifting perfume to women with whom they do not have a close relationship. If presenting a gift, choose something of high quality and be respectful of local customs. Invitations to meals or gatherings can also help to build rapport.

Language and communication

Arabic is the official language and while many Saudis do speak fluent English, it would be helpful to learn some basic Arabic phrases as a sign of respect. Maintain a polite tone in all communications and avoid any confrontational language. The most widely spread greeting is a handshake and the phrase “Assalamu Alaikum” (May peace be upon you), to which the reply is “Wa 'alaikum assalaam” (And peace be upon you). Other words and phrases include: Marhaba (hello); my name is (ismi [your name]); yes (na’am); no (la); please (min fadlik); and thank you, (shukran).

Adhering to business etiquette in Saudi Arabia is fundamental for successful business relationships. Always respect local customs, maintain professionalism and prioritise building trust through personal connections. By following this guide, you can become more confident in the Saudi business environment and look forward to forging successful partnerships.

This article appears in the latest issue of the Omnia Health Magazine, read more here

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