Despite its relatively small size and population, Saudi Arabia is an extremely important country. It is one of the largest producers of oil in the world. As a mass producer of oil, it is rich and has quite a lot of strategic importance to other nations. It also means that there are a huge number of foreign businessmen in this country. Saudi Arabia has a very unique culture, however, these, come with legal rules that you do not want to fall foul of. So if you want to do business in this country, it is important that you follow their unique business etiquette.
Religion and Business
Most countries try to separate business and religion, but in Saudi Arabia the two are intrinsically linked. In fact, nearly everything in Saudi Arabia is linked with Islam in some way. It is important that you realise and respect this, or else you could find yourself on the wrong side of the religious police. For example, alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. All business revolves around Islam, as all business stops at prayer times. Never underestimate the link between religion and business.
As the country sticks to strict Muslim laws and cultural etiquette, the dress code is extremely conservative. The key is modesty. For men a dark suite is expected, showing as little skin as possible. Smart casual is becoming more acceptable, but it would be wise not to test it until you know how your potential business partners will react. For women dark colours are still best and showing any skin above the ankle, or certainly the calf is not advisable. Covering up your sleeves at all times is also a must. When in public though, all women must wear a head scarf and a full body black cloak called a ‘abayya’. These rules for women are not just advisable they are law.
Business cards should always be given and received with the right hand. The left hand is viewed as unclean in Saudi culture. When you are preparing to come to Saudi Arabia it would be a good idea to have one side translated into Arabic. It is not a rule, it is just polite and your potential business partners may appreciate this simple act of courtesy.
Given the conservative nature of the country, business meetings are quite casual affairs. Although it is best for you to be punctual, it is very likely that the people you are going to meet will be late. It is also a culture which is very focused on relationships and Saudi’s are loath to do business with people that they do not know. It is important though to greet the most senior person in the room first. Also when entering a carpeted room, it is customary to take your shoes off, but overall it is probably best to just do what the Saudis’ do.
It is likely that your meeting will be full of small talk, as they try to get to know you. Constant interruptions and cancellations are commonplace in business meetings, as the meetings do not usually follow a schedule. This can mean long and numerous meetings to decide something which could have been decided relatively quickly. Although this may irritate someone who is not used to the culture, it is an inevitable part of the culture.
Gift giving can be complicated in Saudi Arabia, as there are a lot of things that you should not give as gifts for religious reasons. These include alcohol, pork and perfume. Bear in mind that gift giving is not expected, especially not at a first business meeting. If you do exchange gifts, it is considered rude to open gifts in the presence of the giver.
Saudi’s love to haggle over business deals, so do not expect to get a quick deal. Even in the markets there is a huge amount of bargaining, so it is inevitable that it would be part of the business etiquette. The important thing is to keep your cool when negotiating and not get angry. Decisions usually take quite a long time in Saudi Arabia, so just keep your calm.
Some of these rules may seem a bit alien to people from a different culture, but it is essential that you follow them. If you do not follow the rules above, not only could it cost you a lucrative business deal, but it could also cause legal problems for you.