You are on page 1of 12

Country Information: Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Mindset Characteristics of Society Lifestyle & Aspirations The Essentials (10 Key Tips) Working with the Saudis Making a Good Impression Business Etiquette Business Meeting Culture Motivating Others Effective Presentations Managing Relationships

The Saudi Mindset

Saudi Arabia is a conservative and highly religious society. Every element of daily life is governed by Islamic values and tribal traditions derived from nomadic Bedouin roots. The nation experienced a rapid change from a subsistence lifestyle to massive oil wealth in the 1930s and 40s. In the mind of the Saudi (and many other Arabs), the world is divided into neighbours and

strangers. Neighbours are within the immediate sphere of influence and are subject to friendliness, loyalty and hospitality. Strangers have a lower priority. In many aspects of life and business, it is who you know rather than what you know. Family always comes first, followed by loyalty to the tribe (Me and my brother are against my cousin, and me and my cousin are against the stranger). Business is conducted with friends, who are the only people who can be trusted, so winning the trust of a Saudi with whom you wish to work is critical. The Bedouin origins of the population influence many aspects of today's Saudi mindset: political leadership, tribalism, nepotism, honour, hospitality, time orientation and fatalism.
to top

Characteristics of Society
Most Saudis live in cities - some 80%. Most of the population is concentrated in Medinah, Jeddah and Makkah in the West, Riyadh in the centre and Dammam and Al Khobar in the East. There is practically no rural life except in the far south-west, which is greener and used for agriculture. Between cities, the Kingdom consists of large areas of desert. Cities start and finish abruptly, with any green, cultivated areas giving way suddenly to sand. There are a few towns on the coast, to which Saudis may decamp in the hottest months of the year. Some places on the coast even have beach clubs and segregated beaches for men and women. The only people who live in the desert are the Bedouins. They are still nomadic, although most now drive pickup trucks instead of riding the traditional camel. Although the nomadic lifestyle is fast disappearing, many traditions such as tribalism, hospitality and general conservatism remain alive in Saudi society. The population of 26 million includes some six million guest workers, many of whom are attracted to the Kingdom by the prospect of a tax-free income, and higher pay than they would get in home their countries. Many of these workers are from neighbouring Arab countries like Egypt and Yemen, but there are also sizeable populations of Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Thais, Koreans, Americans and Europeans. Some guest workers occupy high-level positions like doctors and engineers jobs for which there is a shortage of Saudi applicants. Others will perform lower level jobs which Saudis prefer not to do, like cleaning and garbage collection. Arab guest workers tend to bring their families and stay in the Kingdom for a long time and often occupy senior positions in business. Westerners tend to work on short, fixed-term contracts. Most guest workers, and certainly the Western ones, are segregated from the Saudi population. Many live in walled compounds, in accommodation that comes with the job. Inside the better compounds there are shops, swimming pools, banks, cinemas and other

recreational facilities. Many wives and children of guest workers rarely stray outside, and have very little interaction with Saudis. Other compounds, for workers from the Third World, are more basic. Once a girl reaches puberty, she must wear the abaya (long, black robe) and some continue to wear the traditional veil. While she can attend a women's university, she will face restrictions in other areas: she will not be allowed to drive, travel around unaccompanied, choose her husband, choose certain careers, or leave the country without her husband's or father's permission. Men can take up to four wives, provided they can support them equally. In the last few years, reformists in Saudi Arabia have been steadily gaining ground in the area of women's rights. Today, a woman can have her own business, sit on company boards and be a member of the chamber of commerce. Many Saudi women, especially those who don't work, start families early. The country has one of the highest birth rates in the world.
to top

Lifestyle & Aspirations

Men, when not working, tend to spend a lot of time in coffee shops with their friends, or sharing a hookah pipe. Camel racing is a popular spectator sport, although less so than in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. Horse racing and falconry are also two traditional sports, mainly enjoyed by the rich. Watching football is very popular among men and the national team is highly regarded internationally. Beach activities are not popular among Saudis because of the restrictive dress code. For Saudis, the most popular weekend activities are visiting friends and family, and camping or picnicking in the desert. For guest workers, particularly those who live in compounds, the story is different. Tennis, squash, gymnasia and swimming pools are widely available. From the beaches, diving, windsurfing, sailing and waterskiing are permitted and guest workers are allowed to wear swimming costumes, although women must stay on family beaches, where single men are not permitted. There are also several sand golf courses, where each shot is taken from a portable piece of Astroturf.
to top

The Essentials (10 Key Tips)

1. Respect hospitality. Accept and extend invitations and learn about Saudi etiquette before visiting someone's office or home. It is impolite to reject coffee or tea when offered. 2. Recognise the great importance of honour and saving face in any negotiation or business transaction. Be prepared to be indirect when saying no or declining an offer. Maintaining a sense of harmony will require a high degree of diplomacy and great patience, and you must do your best not to show frustration. 3. Remember that relationships are the most important element of doing business. You will need to take your time to cultivate and maintain these relationships so do not be in a hurry or be pushy. Once a relationship is formed, it is for life and you can call upon it any time - and they can call upon you. Having said this, price is major influence in most business negotiations. 4. Watch your body language as Arabs are very perceptive of gestures and space. Maintain good eye contact at all times, expect people to come close to you and be very tactile. It is not unusual for your Saudi colleague to hold your hand for a long time or sit closely to you. 5. Respect local culture but do not expect to become deeply involved in it. Foreigners are in Saudi Arabia to work, not to assimilate. Stay out of local politics and issues, even if you disapprove. You cannot change the system as a visitor or guest worker. 6. Stay away from alcohol. Also keep clear of anything that could be construed as pornographic, all drugs, and all products connected with pork. 7. Negotiations may take a long time and require several visits. This is partly to build trust, but also because decisions may be made elsewhere. Indeed, decisions are made at the top, by consensus, often with the help of various committees. In contrast, once a plan has been agreed on, your Saudi counterpart may expect swift action. 8. If you are traveling to Saudi Arabia make sure that you allow plenty of time for several rounds of negotiations per client and be prepared for delays. Always confirm appointments a few days ahead of your trip. 9. Since business is personal, remember that the spoken word or verbal communication is more important than written communication. You get better results and quicker responses by meeting people or calling them rather than writing to them. Minimise your reliance on faxes and e-mails relating to "contractual" issues. 10. Typically most meetings in the Arab world are "circular" rather than "linear". This means that your Saudi counterpart will, in most cases, not stick to a fixed agenda. Points may be re-visted when you thought you had worked through them. Personal issues, comments or other observations may be introduced in the middle of a business discussion. They do this for a variety of reasons including: diffusing of tension, and giving everyone time and space to re-think their positions.
to top

Working with the Saudis

Business in the Arab world is personal. The Arabs have been successful traders for centuries and to many, business is a way of life. The strength of tribalism with its emphasis on family solidarity, paternalistic leadership, and warm relationships strengthens the link between business and personal life. With a better understanding of this approach to business, you will be better equipped to handle meetings, understand tactics, avoid frustration and see opportunities. The "Business is Personal" perspective has many connotations, implications and indications. At a corporate level, it means that there will be different selection criteria for positions; personal connections will play an important role. In business relationships, your Saudi counterpart would want to know you, trust you and feel comfortable with you on the personal level before anything productive begins to happen. Typically, most Western organisations would send an expatriate on a 3 years posting, on average. In the Arab world, both the organisation and the expatriate will need to be prepared to stay much longer. This means investment in time on the personal level. For visiting expatriates and businessmen, long periods of absence is not a good idea. Regular visits will need to be scheduled, and if that is not possible, continuous telephone conversation is advisable. These telephone calls need not be business, and in fact, it will consolidate the relationship when people pick up the phone just to say "Hello", "How are you", and exchange news. Getting to know your Saudi counterpart is also an essential tool for networking in the Kingdom. More than anything else, being a friend of a friend, or having Waasta (connections) can cut out considerable time and bureaucratic procedures. The Asian proverb "for our friends we interpret the law and for our enemies we apply the law" is just as true for most of the Arab world. When you are visiting your Saudi colleague and you are suddenly interrupted by a visiting friend or family member do not get frustrated, but rather use it as an opportunity to further expand your network. It is essential for Westerners doing business in the Kingdom to understand Saudi etiquette and the personal manner in which business is conducted. The business and cultural environment in the Kingdom is very conservative. Preparation, and some basic knowledge of Saudi business culture, can make the difference between a successful business deal and a failed negotiation. There is no point expressing radical opinions or trying to change things reform is very slow in Saudi Arabia and any perceived criticism will offend your hosts. It is important to note, however, that many Saudi business executives and government officials have studied and/or worked abroad, many of them in the United States. They are therefore familiar with Western culture and are comfortable with its differing approach to business, provided respect is shown for Saudi customs.
to top

Making a Good Impression

One of the most important golden rules in all cross-cultural interactions is that "perception is reality". This means that getting to know the Saudi perceptions of your culture or company and even yourself, is key to business success. The magic lies in "consolidating" or "building on" the positive perceptions and "counteracting" the negative perceptions. One example is that westerners are perceived as very punctual and time conscious and that is a respected characteristic; so make sure you are always on time, even if you know that your host will be late. It will always work to your advantage. On the other hand, the Arab perception of "westerners" is that they are "rigid or impersonal" and so showing your personal side will enhance their view of you. Many leading Saudi businessmen are Western-educated and have travelled extensively. They are comfortable dealing with visiting business people. Like other Arabs, Saudis are hospitable and place a great deal of emphasis on an outward expression of politeness and quiet demeanour. Aggressive and demonstrative behaviour will not be well received and can rapidly diminish any chance of meaningful business engagement. Image is important in Saudi Arabia and you should be smartly dressed. Don't turn up at a meeting in a thobe (the long, white shirt worn by Saudi men) - they may think you are mocking them. Visiting businesswomen should adopt a very conservative dress code. Pay attention to your company's branding. Prestige is important. Potential clients want to see what your status is within your home country. A good website with strong links to relevant industry partners or associations really helps. Do not underestimate the importance of entertaining. Accept invitations graciously and learn social etiquette before attending. You are not obliged to reciprocate, although it's acceptable to do so if you wish. Understand the importance of forming a bond with your Saudi counterpart. Once the bond is established, they will see you as their friend. If you are visiting the kingdom, you should visit them. A visit is even more powerful if there is no business to conduct, issues for follow up or favours to be called upon. Keeping in touch is essential. Friends are also expected to do favours for one another; you should not be embarrassed if your Saudi contact asks you for something.
to top

Business Etiquette
Business cards Have business cards printed in Arabic, with your full title and qualifications. Your Arab counterpart wants to build a picture of who you are, so give as much information as possible. How your title is translated will be critical in relaying that image. Titles such as "coordinator", "representative" can be meaningless in Arabic. It is a good idea to include "Manager" in your title. English should be printed on the reverse. If you are having only Arabic cards, embossed gold text impresses. When you translate your card, make sure that you choose a good translator and have them proofed by a reliable Arab friend. Gift giving It is not usual to bring a personal gift for anyone except a very close friend. The gift must be of the highest possible quality. It is not common for Arabs to open the gift in front of you so do not be disappointed. Hand-woven carpets, platinum items (not gold) and scent for men are valued gifts. On the other hand, corporate gifts are fairly common in the Arab world, and are expected especially at the beginning of the year. Never admire something in somebody's house or office too effusively, as they will feel obliged to present it to you as a gift, which can be highly embarrassing. If you do admire something, and it is offered you can say no. Should they insist, do accept, but do not try and reciprocate immediately. Reciprocate at a later time when the gesture would be seen to be more spontaneous. While gift giving is not usually appropriate, the exchange of favours is very common. There is no sense of embarrassment in asking you to do a favour for them, particularly something relatively small which does not interfere with their moral code - like meeting up with somebody who is visiting your country, or bringing something with you that's hard to source in the Kingdom. Body language Saudis are very tactile. When engaged in conversation, they tend to stand much closer to one another than Americans, North Europeans and East Asians do. In other words, the Arab "personal space" is much smaller than most Europeans or North Americans, but may be slightly larger than the Indian Sub-continent. Arabs will also employ some body contact to emphasise a point or confirm that they have your attention, like touching your arm. It is important not to draw back. This may be interpreted as a rebuff or rejection of what is being

said. Be sure to maintain steady eye contact, too, so that you appear trustworthy. Looking up while talking maybe interpreted as condescending, looking down as being subservient, and looking away as being evasive. Arabs traditionally use the right hand for all public functions - including shaking hands, eating, drinking, and passing objects to another person. The left hand is considered unclean and you must minimise using it when coming into contact with another person. Gesticulating wildly may also be considered impolite. It is also rude to show the sole of the foot to another person, so be careful how you sit. Communication style Saudis are high-context communicators. This means that the actual words used carry just a fraction of the intended meaning; body language and the general mood must be taken into consideration. 'Yes', for example, can mean 'perhaps' or even just 'I hear you' depending on the body language that is accompanying it, together with the tone in which it is said. Be aware that you will be judged in the same way, so pay attention to how your body language could be interpreted by your hosts. Saudis are highly verbal and do not place the same emphasis on written communications that Westerners do. A phone call will have more impact than a series of e-mails, but a personal visit will have the biggest impact of all. It is only in a face-to-face situation that you can absorb the full meaning of what is being said via gestures, tongue clicking, eye contact, eyebrow raising, facial expressions and nods or shakes of the head. Learn to become an active listener and when you speak, do so with brevity and confidence, maintaining emphasis on your paramount objectives. A friendly and open approach to business will always be appreciated. Whoever they are talking to, a Saudi will remain aware of their hierarchy and will always defer to a person of higher authority. Saudis are inherently polite and fairly formal in their communication, and will remain so, even with close friends and contacts.
to top

Business Meeting Culture

Planning a meeting You may well need to have several meetings with your Saudi counterpart before negotiations can even begin. Saudis derive comfort from doing business with people whom they are familiar with, and the first meeting will be spent getting to know you. Also many traditional

Saudis may think it to be discourteous to really launch into business on the first meeting, especially if you are visiting the country. Business will be raised in the first meeting but the objective is likely to be to determine positions ahead of the second meeting. In the public sector, they may want to consult with superiors or colleagues before the real business is conducted or negotiations start in earnest. Meetings are often delayed or cancelled and it can be frustrating trying to assemble a group of people from different businesses in one room. Aim for early morning, or immediately after prayers. Be patient and polite when trying to arrange meetings. Remember, too, to get clear instructions (or to issue them if you are hosting the meeting) concerning the meeting's venue. Many taxi drivers are South Asian and do not read Arabic, and rely on landmarks for directions rather than road names. Remember, too, that it is acceptable to drop in casually on somebody you already know well if you are in their area. Arabs are extremely hospitable and they will usually welcome you. Cold calling on somebody you don't know is unacceptable behaviour. Many Saudi business executives will prepare carefully for meetings and have a good grasp of the important details surrounding negotiations, relying more heavily on memory than on papers and notes. Unless you are meeting with well educated or Westernised Saudis, do not issue an agenda and circulate it. It won't be followed, and such rigid planning may offend the Arab sense of spontaneity and spirited discussion. During a meeting Saudi businesses are unlikely to finalise any serious negotiation without such a face to face meeting. The personal relationship is a key aspect of doing business in the Kingdom. Meetings are conducted at a leisurely pace, with the parties' involved enjoying cordial discussion over coffee and tea. It is very rude to rush someone, so be prepared for plenty of 'small talk', the subjects of which should be introduced by your Saudi counterpart. Don't ask about somebody's wife; enquiries about 'family' are more appropriate. Sport and positive remarks about the Kingdom are good conversation topics, while politics, religion and too much information about your own family are not. Arabs tend to jump from one subject to another. It is not uncommon to get involved in a business discussion and suddenly switch back to personal matters. Try not to show your frustration with this. It may be your counterpart's way of breaking the tension. Accept tea, coffee or snacks even if you don't consume it all. The offer of strong black coffee is a feature of Arab meetings and should never be refused. The cups are small and when you have enough, a polite wiggle of your cup signifies to the server that you have had enough. Your host may interrupt the meeting at any time to answer any one of a number of phones, fixed and mobile, or respond to an assistant seeking a signature or advice.

Other people may enter the meeting, often quite unrelated to your business. This is part of the accessible nature of Arab society. Adopt a passive role, unless you are invited into the conversation. Interruptions like this may even happen while you are in mid-presentation, but don't become tense or impatient. If the meeting runs into prayer time, expect proceedings to be halted until prayers are over. Do not look for a definite structure or linear flow of discussion topics in meetings. Keep an eye on your objectives, but don't try and force the conversation towards them. Following a meeting The most likely outcome of a meeting is that another meeting will be needed. Do not attach too much importance on talk of doing great volumes of business together in future. Saudis can sometimes exaggerate; this is entirely benign and is designed to make everybody feel better. If you have reached agreement in negotiations, it is acceptable to draw up a contract, although this will be subject to change. A highly detailed contract will give the impression that you do not trust your counterpart, which is insulting to them. It is acceptable to invite your counterpart out for a meal, although in the Saudi's mind, this does not mean the deal is going to be done. Accepting, or reciprocating, may be a way of letting you down gently. Most Saudis prefer to entertain at home, but they will usually graciously accept your offer of hospitality.
to top

Motivating Others
Saudis are motivated by a sense of belonging. They are family-orientated and risk-averse and will respond best to an environment where they feel valued and at home. This will encourage a feeling of loyalty to the company. Communication between managers and subordinates should be verbal wherever possible, not via memos. Feedback should be spontaneous, positive and encouraging, and anything negative should be conveyed indirectly and discreetly. Saudis are also motivated by prestige. A job with a multinational is considered prestigious, as is a very highranking position in a Saudi company. Nepotism is common in the Kingdom, and individuals tend to be promoted on factors other than just performance, e.g. personality and how they fit in. Although prestige and honour are motivational, Saudis are not especially money-orientated beyond being able to provide a home for their families.

Setting targets and deadlines will not motivate Saudis, whose concept of time is completely different to that of most Westerners. People other than those at the top rarely put in overtime. Work should not encroach on family time, and trying to meet an arbitrary deadline is not a top priority. The future is subject to God's will and planning far ahead is not usually done.
to top

Effective Presentations
Arabs place great emphasis on the past, so it is better to talk about your company's track record rather than on what you intend to do in the future. Real achievements backed by drawings, photos, certificates and maybe testimonies will count more towards selling your "product" than the abstract "vision" of what may happen in the future. Telling a good story about a specific project or how the company started will grab the attention and stay in people's memory. When making a presentation, bear in mind that Saudis tend to learn through the senses and through memorising. The use of imagery, analogy, repetition and graphics are important. Always highlight the human aspects of the project, such as job creation and the benefit to the Saudi community. Use a lot of visual support data including graphs, blueprints and material samples. You may want to have all written material translated into Arabic and check it carefully for potentially offensive visuals like uncovered women. Do not be at all surprised if people take calls on their mobile phones during a presentation. If this happens, the best thing to do is to stop and wait patiently until the call is finished. The presentation may also be interrupted by visitors, who will be greeted by your Saudi counterpart. Take a cue from your counterpart as to when the presentation should resume. Your audience will expect you to show respect by understanding their culture. Dress smartly, make time for small talk before the presentation, show respect at all times, and in a question and answer session, show the conviction of your arguments. To a Saudi audience, constant interruptions in a meeting are normal, and you should not show your frustration if this happens. The audience will expect time to ask questions and may well interrupt the presentation, which should not be taken as an insult. It shows they are paying attention. It is not a good sign if there are no questions afterwards.
to top

Managing Relationships
Great care needs to be taken in managing relationships with Saudis, but if you get it right your Saudi contacts will be intensely loyal to you. Observe the Saudi culture and correct protocols at all times. This means maintaining a degree of respect and formality even with close friends. Give feedback very carefully. Formal, written systems of giving and receiving feedback are frowned upon - Arabs see them as cold and impersonal. Positive feedback is acceptable if it's spontaneous and distributed between a whole team. Negative feedback must be delivered tactfully, indirectly and in private. Remember that prestige and a sense of belonging are strong motivators to Saudis. Harmony in the workplace should always be encouraged; although a heated discussion in Arabic may sound like an argument; it is merely an exchange of views. Losing one's temper does not impress and causes a loss of face for all concerned. Relationships with clients and suppliers must be nurtured and cemented with frequent visits. Do not try to conduct a relationship by email; you may be replaced by someone who makes the effort to meet face-to-face.
to top