A few months ago, we shared the story of an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) who got fired for making a TikTok video in the workplace, while wearing a job uniform. Although this may not seem like a big deal in some countries, it is considered a serious matter here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
For many decades now, millions of foreign workers, including Filipinos, have come to live and work in Saudi Arabia. Other than having a booming oil industry, the Kingdom has also become a hub for business, tourism, and other trades. Nonetheless, the country has a predominantly Muslim population, with a culture and way of life that is built on the tenets of Islam. Hence, everybody, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, is expected to be familiar with the local culture.
Business Etiquette: Reminders for Expats in Saudi Arabia
Whether you have just arrived here in Saudi Arabia, or if you are planning to come here for work and business purposes, remember that there are certain guidelines to be followed. In this article, we will discuss several DOs and DON’Ts that every visitor or expat worker must be aware of.
1. DO… Dress formally and conservatively.
The dress code in Saudi Arabia is relatively more “reserved” compared to other countries in the Middle East. Saudi men typically wear traditional attire consisting of a thobe (ankle-length garment) and a shemagh (headdress), while the women wear an abaya (full-length garment).
When coming to work or business meetings, expat men typically wear a formal suit and tie. Meanwhile, expat women usually wear floor-length dresses, skirts, or trousers. Women are also advised to carry an abaya, which they may be required to wear when visiting certain places.
2. DO… Arrive for work on time.
Compared to most Western countries, office hours in Saudi Arabia are not as “urgent” or fast-paced. Still, workers are expected to arrive for work on time. Working days are generally from Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being the weekend. Businesses usually operate from 8 am to 12 noon in the morning, and then from 4 pm to 8pm in the afternoon.
3. DO… Greet people with a handshake.
Typically, men shake hands upon greeting each other. In workplace meetings, it is common for Saudi men to take their time greeting each person individually, shaking hands while standing. The same cannot be said for Saudi women, however. (More on this below)
4. DO… Be aware of “hierarchies.”
In the local culture, hierarchy is important. For example, when greeting people in the workplace, an expat should begin with the most senior person first. Likewise, the use of “titles” (e.g. Doctor, Sheikh, etc.) is also common. Management style is also hierarchical, with most decisions being made by top-level positions, before being carried down to the rest of the staff.
5. DO… Exchange greeting cards.
It is customary to exchange greetings cards, especially at the beginning of a business meeting. When somebody hands you a card, take time to read it; don’t put it away immediately as this is considered rude. For language and communication purposes, you could also have business cards written in English on one side, and Arabic on the other side.
6. DO… Receive refreshments with your right hand.
When offered coffee or tea during a business meeting or when visiting a Saudi person’s home, be sure to accept it. Refusing the offer would be considered rude and disrespectful. Moreover, be sure to receive the coffee, tea, or other refreshments with your right hand (and not your left).
7. DO… Be observant and respectful of Islamic culture.
As mentioned earlier, Saudi Arabia has a predominantly Muslim population. Hence, it is important to be aware and respectful of Islamic culture, whether you’re Muslim or non-Muslim.
8. DO… Make time for “small talk.”
Unlike in most Western countries, where communication is usually direct and impersonal, the business culture in Saudi Arabia is quite the opposite. During the first meeting, people are not expected to “jump” into a business discussion right away. You see, Saudi citizens like to get to know their colleagues more, before conducting any business-related matters.
Take time to engage in “small talk” about the weather, food, where you’re from, and other topics. The idea is to build rapport with your colleagues and superiors, so that a long-term business relationship can be established.
9. DO… Learn some Arabic words.
English is widely spoken in Saudi Arabia, especially in business settings. Nevertheless, learning some Arabic words and phrases would be a good idea, as it could help you connect better with Saudi nationals. When they hear you speak in Arabic, they will surely appreciate the time and effort you made in learning their native language!
10. DON’T… Avoid eye contact.
Making eye contact when speaking to other people is important. Saudi citizens consider eye contact as a sign of honesty and sincerity, so be sure to establish eye contact when speaking to Saudi men. On other hand, Saudi women usually don’t make direct eye contact with men that they are not familiar with, so be sure to keep this in mind.
11. DON’T… Shake a woman’s hand first.
Earlier, we mentioned the importance of shaking hands when greeting people, particularly Saudi men. When greeting Saudi women, however, avoid offering your hand first, as they usually do not shake hands with men that they’re not familiar with. Simply wait and see how they will greet you, and do the same. Let them offer their hand in greeting first, instead of the other way around!
12. DON’T… Forget the importance of Islam.
We’ve said this before, though we’d like to put emphasis again on the importance of Islamic culture. Unlike in other countries where people usually “separate” their professional lives from their personal and spiritual lives, this does not apply to most Saudi nationals. For them, Islam is a part of their personal, spiritual, and professional lives. Do keep this in mind and always remain sensitive to the local culture.
As you can see, the Saudi way of life may be different from what you are used to in your home country. However, since you will be staying in the Kingdom for quite some time, it is important to know about business etiquette and related matters. In addition to the guidelines above, here is a list of other do’s and don’ts in Saudi Arabia that every expat, visitor, or tourist should know.