Basic Business Etiquette in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia benefits from valuable and plentiful natural resources, high per capita income and a growing consumer class that is interested in Western goods and services. These assets make Saudi Arabia an excellent place to do business, if you understand—more than in many other countries—that cultural literacy is essential. If you would like to break into this market and experience success, demonstrate your seriousness by respecting their cultural practices, including religion. 

The Importance of Religion

Western countries are religiously diverse, and Westerners consider their religion private and inappropriate for the workplace. In Saudi Arabia, Islam influences every aspect of the culture, from business hours to acceptable dress to meals to greetings. Saudi Arabia is religiously homogenous (about 85% Muslim). 

Focus on Personal Relationships

Saudi Arabians place great emphasis on relationships. Next to Islam, relationships are the second most important influence on Saudi culture. Plan to invest time and effort to build a personal relationship before attempting a business relationship. Share meals and attend several preliminary meetings to spend time getting to know one another. 

Focus on Family and Groups

The central social units in Saudi Arabia are family, clan, and other extended social groups. If you wish to compliment a Saudi Arabian man, then compliment his family rather than him personally. Likewise, avoid boasting about yourself. Focus instead on accomplishments of your children and extended family members. Because of Saudi gender practices, it is more courteous to ask about a man’s family and children (as opposed to specifically asking after his wife or daughters). 

Essential Differences from Western Culture

Gender equality

In recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has slowly begun to increase the presence of women in the workplace. Women wanting to do business in Saudi Arabia should be aware they may initially be regarded as inferiors in the Saudi business world. 


The Saudi management style is vertically hierarchical, with decision-making concentrated at the senior level of an organization. Saudi society is highly bureaucratic, and most decisions require several layers of approval. Social status in Saudi society is based on age and gender. 

Recommendation: To show the appropriate respect when greeting new business associates, start with the most senior male present and proceed from there. 

Key Business Practices

Differences between Arab and Western culture present special challenges to Western businesspeople. Remember that it is up to you to adapt, not your hosts.

Right Hand, Never Left

Always use your right hand for all public functions, as the left hand is considered unclean. 

Recommendation: Deliver gifts and business cards with your right hand, eat with your right hand (even if you are normally left-handed) and minimize the use of your left hand as much as possible.


It is customary for the person who issued the invitation to pick up the bill. Meetings are usually leisurely, and consist almost entirely of small talk, including questions about health, family, travels, and other non-business topics. 

Recommendation: Wait to discuss business until your business associate brings it up. 

Business Days and Hours

The Saudi work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday. The official days of rest are Friday and Saturday. Office hours tend to be from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (from 8:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. during Ramadan), with some regional variation. 

Business dress

Business attire in Saudi Arabia is conservative. Despite the heat, men typically wear suits and ties for business meetings. Women should wear conservative attire that covers as much skin as possible, including their shoulders and necklines. Skirts should be ankle-length. 

Recommendation: Women should always carry head scarves – they may be expected to cover their hair in certain situations.


Nepotism is an expected part of the Saudi business world. It is not viewed negatively, but rather is seen as natural and appropriate for business.

Emphasis on Personal Connections

Because of the emphasis on trust and relationships, Saudis are not likely to welcome direct contact from someone who is not known to them. Rely on mutual acquaintances to facilitate introductions.

Recommendation: Work through your network as much as possible. 


Gifts are never required but are often appreciated, however, be cautious. Saudi Arabia, especially in the public sector, is considered moderately corrupt by Western standards. This is complicated by the regional concept of baksheesh, which means “gift,” and refers to anything from charitable donations to tipping and outright bribery. Because of this, and because of recent crackdowns on corruption, a gift to a business partner (especially early in the relationship) could be taken as an offensive suggestion that they are open to bribes.

Recommendation:  If you wish to give a gift, wait until your relationship is well-established. Make any gift small and personal, wrapped, and of high quality. Avoid alcohol, knives (anything with a blade), or any sort of pork product. 

With understanding, patience, and attention to cultural nuances, your chances of succeeding in the Saudi Arabian marketplace are much enhanced.