Saudi Arabia Business Practices Guide

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As the global business landscape evolves, it beckons enterprises to explore untapped markets and strategically position themselves for future growth. Standing prominently in the vista of opportunities is Saudi Arabia, the desert kingdom that offers a tantalizing mix of rich heritage, booming economy, and economic reforms. This article delves deeply into Saudi business practices, comparing them with other cultures and equipping enterprises with the insights needed to navigate this promising market.


Overview: Saudi Arabia in a Global Business Context


Emerging as a significant player in the global economic landscape, Saudi Arabia, boasting a GDP of $1.1 trillion in 2022, holds immense business potential. While the Kingdom’s economic strength has traditionally been anchored in its oil wealth, the transformative Vision 2030 plan is altering this dynamic. This comprehensive economic strategy is driving Saudi Arabia towards reduced oil-dependence, more diverse economic activities, and enhancements in public sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. This shift is reshaping the business landscape and has left a wealth of investment opportunities in its wake.


Alabdullatif Furniture Building


Unlike Western nations such as the U.S and Europe, where transparency, regulatory compliance, and corporate governance form the bedrock of business practices, or Asian markets like China and Japan that prioritize relationships, consensus, and long-term partnerships, Saudi Arabia mixes aspects of its rich cultural heritage with elements of Western and Asian business customs. This unique blend creates a dynamic and ever-evolving business environment that requires a nuanced understanding for success.


The Saudi Consumer

The Saudi consumer market, characterized by a large and youthful population, high internet penetration rates, and strong purchasing power, presents enticing opportunities for Western businesses. The increasing consumer demand for foreign products, coupled with a growing appetite for online shopping, makes Saudi Arabia a lucrative market for Western businesses, particularly in the e-commerce, retail, and luxury goods sectors.

Understanding consumer behavior in Saudi Arabia, however, requires a grasp of the socio-cultural context. For example, family plays a significant role in Saudi society, and businesses need to consider this when devising their marketing strategies. Also, with Islam being a key influencer in all aspects of Saudi life, businesses must ensure their products, services, and marketing messages are culturally appropriate and respectful.


Cultural Understanding: The Bedrock of Saudi Business Practices


Saudi Arabia’s business practices are deeply rooted in its rich culture, infused with Islamic principles and Arabian traditions. This strong cultural underpinning translates into a business environment that values relationships, respect, and mutual trust.

Compared to Western business culture that values pragmatism, directness, and efficiency, prioritizing contractual obligations over personal relationships, or Asian business models emphasizing patience, harmony, and relationship-building, the Saudi Arabian market calls for a balance between maintaining cultural traditions and the pragmatic demands of modern business. Successfully striking this balance is crucial for any enterprise seeking to establish a robust foothold in the Kingdom.

The business customs of Saudi Arabia are deeply rooted in the country’s collective societal framework. The close network, whether it be nuclear family, extended family, or acquaintances, is perceived as the most crucial social entity. In this context, allegiance and loyalty are deemed absolutely essential. Consequently, Saudi Arabians often prefer to engage in commercial interactions with individuals who have gained their trust and familiarity.

Factors such as age and gender, among others, significantly influence social status, which holds considerable importance within Saudi society and, by extension, within business interactions. Corporate structures are typically hierarchical in Saudi Arabia, with decision-making power being centralized at the top echelons of an organization. Bureaucracy is very prevalent in Saudi society, meaning that in most decisions needing approval from multiple levels of authority.

Generally, Saudi Arabians are oriented towards forming and maintaining relationships. Given the importance of trust as a foundational principle, it becomes essential to invest enough time and effort into fostering personal relationships prior to initiating a business association.


The Art of Building Relationships: Key to Success in Saudi Arabia


In Saudi Arabia, the business culture shares a common trait with societies in East Asia, in so much that it highly values the cultivation of long-lasting, trustworthy relationships. In China, this is known as ‘guanxi’. These bonds become the bedrock of business decisions and transactions, taking precedence over contractual and legal considerations. This stands in stark contrast to the transactional approach typically seen in Western businesses, where legal contracts take the reins of business engagements.

Similarly, at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s relationship-centric approach is the concept of ‘wasta’, a term loosely translated to ‘connections’ or ‘influence’ in English. This deeply entrenched tradition, originating from the country’s tribal familial structures, serves as the linchpin in virtually all business transactions. Saudis, therefore, nurture strong social and professional networks, going the extra mile to support their family and friends when needed.

To establish and maintain these relationships, a deeply personal and committed approach is essential. This means that business endeavors in Saudi Arabia pivot largely on personal interactions. While emails have become common, they need to be supplemented with phone calls or face-to-face discussions that reference the points raised in these emails. The absence of these direct communication methods could lead to a slower than expected progression in business undertakings!


Handshake between Arab and a Businessman


In summary, the high value placed on personal interactions and face-to-face meetings over digital communication underscores the fact that fostering successful business relationships in the Kingdom calls for significant time investment, willingness to travel, and a genuine interest in the local culture.


First Impressions: Navigating Respect and Rituals in Saudi Arabia


Saudi business etiquette, rooted in respect for hierarchy and traditions, differs significantly from the relatively flat-structured Scandinavian business cultures or the casual and informal American business environment.

Greetings in Saudi Arabia are of paramount importance as they are deeply ingrained in the culture, reflecting the local values of respect, hospitality, and community, and serving as an essential starting point for any social or business interactions.

So, without further ado, here is a starter pack for how to greet Saudis:


Arabic Transliteration English Meaning
السلام عليكم Assalamu alaikum Peace be upon you
وعليكم السلام Wa alaikum assalaam And peace be upon you too
صباح الخير Sabah al-kheir Good morning
مساء الخير Masa’ al-kheir Good evening
صباح النور Sabah an-noor Response to ‘Good morning’
مساء النور Masa’ an-noor Response to ‘Good evening’
مرحبا Marhaba Hello
أهلا وسهلا Ahlan wa sahlan Welcome
كيف حالك؟ Kayf haalak? (for male), Kayf haalik? (for female) How are you?
الحمد لله Alhamdulillah Praise be to God (often used as a response to ‘How are you?’)


At first, the pronunciation can be hard, but the effort goes a long way and will no doubt endear you to the Saudis.

It is also common after initial greetings for Arabs to ask about your family, including specific members of your family. Since family is important to Arabs it is common that these questions come immediately after initial greetings. Most conservative male Muslims in Arab culture avoid asking about female relatives as it might be seen as offensive, but this can vary by country, the depth of the relationship, and the individual you are dealing with. If you are going to check in about their family, it is best to play it safe.


Business Meeting with Arab


Titles also hold significant importance, and their correct usage signals respect; for example, using professional designations such as ‘Doctor’ or ‘Ustadh’ (meaning ‘teacher’), followed by the person’s given name, is a way of showing respect.

The importance of tradition and symbolism in Saudi business etiquette mirrors Japan’s ritualistic tea ceremony. Initial meetings in Saudi Arabia are less about business transactions and more about relationship-building. The offering and acceptance of coffee or tea, engaging in conversation about non-business topics, and exhibiting patience play a crucial role in establishing trust. Rushing is often seen as a sign of disrespect or desperation. The focus here is on building trust and mutual respect, rather than pushing for a quick deal. Therefore, it’s essential to be patient and allow negotiations to unfold at their own pace.


Business Meeting Practices in Saudi Arabia: Traditions and Tips


Business meeting practices in Saudi Arabia provide a unique insight into the blend of traditional customs and modern corporate culture in the Kingdom. Understanding these practices is crucial to developing effective working relationships and achieving business success. I have broken down how one should approach these meetings:


Scheduling and Punctuality

Setting up a business meeting in Saudi Arabia often involves flexibility, as plans can change frequently. While punctuality is valued, meetings can often start late or be interrupted due to social and prayer obligations. Thus, an understanding of this fluid sense of time is important when conducting business.


The Initial Meeting: Building Trust

The first meeting is typically focused on relationship building rather than business discussions. Be prepared to engage in small talk and personal discussions, as this is seen as a way to build trust and rapport.


Dress Code

The dress code for business meetings is formal. Men are expected to wear a suit and tie. For women engaged in business travel to Saudi Arabia, it’s essential to adhere to the local dress code by wearing an ‘abaya,’ a long black garment that covers the body from neck to ankles and extends to the wrists. Additionally, carrying a headscarf is recommended as a precautionary measure to respect local customs, especially in potential interactions with the country’s religious law enforcement.


First impressions: Greetings and Gestures

Upon meeting, a handshake is the common greeting, and then you can try out one of your newly learned phrases such as ‘assalamu alaikum’. It is customary to shake hands with everyone present, moving from right to left. Avoid shaking hands with someone of the opposite gender unless they extend their hand first.

While the exchange of business cards isn’t mandatory, it is a practice that’s appreciated. If business cards are exchanged, once again ensure you use your right hand to give and receive them.


Gift Giving

Gift giving is a common practice but not mandatory. If you choose to give a gift, make sure it’s of good quality to reflect respect and appreciation. Avoid giving alcohol or anything made from pigskin, as these are against Islamic law.



In conclusion, Saudi Arabian business meeting practices reflect a deep-seated respect for tradition, personal relationships, and Islamic customs. Navigating these practices with understanding and respect can open doors to successful business ventures in the Kingdom.


The Art of Negotiation and Contracts in Saudi Arabia: A Detailed Breakdown


Navigating the labyrinth of negotiations and contracts in Saudi Arabia is an exercise in patience, understanding, and cultural sensitivity. It’s a dance that combines the rigidity of legal texts with the fluidity of cultural nuances, making it a unique aspect of Saudi business culture.


Meeting with Arab


Negotiations: Patience Is a virtue

Saudi business culture emphasizes a slower, more deliberate pace in negotiations compared to many Western cultures. Rushing is often seen as a sign of disrespect or desperation. The focus here is on building trust and mutual respect, rather than pushing for a quick deal. Therefore, it’s essential to be patient and allow negotiations to unfold at their own pace.


The Role of Personal Relationships

As discussed earlier, personal relationships, or ‘wasta,’ play a crucial role in Saudi business culture. This extends to the negotiation process as well. In fact, Saudi businesspeople often prefer to negotiate with those they know and trust. Therefore, investing time in relationship building can prove advantageous during negotiations.


Understanding Hierarchies

In Saudi businesses, decision-making authority often lies with the top-level management. Therefore, it’s common for negotiation discussions to be relayed up the hierarchical ladder for final decisions. It’s crucial to understand and respect this process, as attempts to bypass this hierarchy could be seen as disrespectful.


Contractual Agreements: The Legal and Cultural Aspects


Contracts in Saudi Arabia carry legal weight, but they’re also considered a testament to the relationship between the parties involved. Therefore, contracts often go beyond merely defining terms and conditions. They reflect the mutual trust and respect between the parties.

Saudi law primarily governs contracts in Saudi Arabia, but Islamic law principles also influence contractual agreements, especially in sectors like banking and finance. Therefore, it’s advisable to engage local legal expertise to ensure contracts comply with Saudi and Islamic laws.

It is also worth noting that Saudi Arabia has recently embraced regulatory reforms to attract foreign investment, a sharp contrast to its historically insular business practices. The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) has streamlined business registration processes, while government-led initiatives, such as the NEOM mega-city project, aim to incentivize foreign investment.

Overall, however, the Saudi legal system still remains relatively opaque, especially when compared to the more transparent regulatory frameworks prevalent in Western countries. Understanding Saudi laws, including labor laws, commercial laws, and tax laws, is essential for successful business operations in the Kingdom. Hence, engaging a local partner or legal expert can be invaluable in navigating this complex legal terrain. Note that once you have employed this contact, it is extremely difficult to switch to another.


Other Cultural and Religious Considerations


  • Do not expect to see many Saudi women when conducting business in Saudi, even though women professionals are becoming more common. The public domain is seen as a male enclave, and women are subject to many restrictions by law. Whilst reforms are starting to dismantle these barriers, and Saudi women are playing increasingly prominent roles in the business sector, it is still very much a patriarchal society.
  • Muslims follow a daily routine of five obligatory prayers, whose timings are announced via a call from local mosques and are also listed in daily newspapers. These prayers include Al-Fajr (dawn, before sunrise), Al-Zuhr (midday, after the sun peaks), Al-‘Asr (late afternoon), Al-Maghrib (just after sunset), and Al-‘Isha (between sunset and midnight). Given the importance and religious adherence to these prayer times, it’s recommended to avoid scheduling business meetings during these periods.
  • If invited to dinner in Saudi Arabia, then be sure to heed this advice! Firstly, be prepared to sit on the floor as a lot of meals are served in that style. It’s acceptable to adjust your position occasionally as it can become uncomfortable to sit for long periods on the floor, especially if you are not accustomed. However, when changing position, be aware that pointing the soles of your feet towards a Saudi is viewed as the height of rudeness. Typically, meals are served communal style, with dishes placed at the center of the floor or table and everyone partaking from the shared plates. As a guest, you might be offered the choicest pieces of food, and it’s considered polite to accept them. However, refrain from helping yourself until directed to do so. In some countries, the tradition is for the oldest person present to start eating first, followed by the rest of the group.
  • Public behavior is heavily regulated in Saudi Arabia. For example, eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan is not allowed. Drinking alcohol is forbidden and so is eating pork. It is also illegal to carry or display religious symbols of faiths other than Islam.
  • Ramadan, the holy month of fasting in the Islamic calendar, is a significant time in Saudi Arabia and greatly impacts business operations. During this period, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and other physical needs from dawn until sunset. As such, the pace of business tends to slow down with shorter working hours, usually from late morning until early afternoon. It’s considered disrespectful to eat, drink or smoke in public during the day, even for non-Muslims. Moreover, business meetings and negotiations are often postponed until after Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. Despite these changes, Ramadan can also be a time of heightened business activity in sectors such as retail and food services, as people prepare for the nightly Iftar (meal to break the fast) and the upcoming Eid celebrations.


Embracing Opportunities: The Way Forward for Western Businesses in Saudi Arabia


The journey of Western businesses in Saudi Arabia can be complex, filled with cultural nuances, regulatory hurdles, and shifting market dynamics. But beyond these challenges lie unparalleled opportunities. Saudi Arabia’s vibrant economy, fueled by economic diversification initiatives and digital transformation, presents an enticing canvas for businesses willing to adapt, learn, and grow.

The key to success lies in understanding and embracing Saudi business practices while remaining flexible and responsive to change. Businesses must prioritize cultural understanding and respect, invest time and effort in building relationships, navigate the legal and regulatory landscape wisely, and leverage digital trends to thrive in this evolving market.

Moreover, Western businesses can play an integral role in shaping Saudi Arabia’s future by contributing to its societal and economic transformation. Whether it’s through supporting the growing role of women in business, fostering digital innovation, or aligning with Vision 2030’s goals, businesses have the chance to not only succeed but also make a positive and lasting impact.

In conclusion, Saudi Arabia, a land steeped in heritage and charged with aspiration, invites businesses to embark on a journey of discovery, growth, and success. It is a market that rewards the patient, the resilient, and the respectful. Western businesses seeking to unlock new growth avenues, create meaningful impacts, and shape a shared future, will find in Saudi Arabia a partner ready for business!


Author: Jack Beckford


Jordan Boshers

Jordan Boshers is the Chief Digital Strategist at IstiZada, a digital agency that helps companies market to Arabs. He has 10+ years of experience running successful digital marketing campaigns in the Arab world. His insights into Arabic SEO helped him grow previously unknown websites to dominate Arabic niches on Google including growing one site from 0 to more than 1 million users monthly. Jordan has consulted for hundreds of companies including helping corporations like Amazon, Berlitz, and Exxon Mobil with their Arabic digital marketing. Learn more here or on LinkedIn.