Information & Facts
If you are looking to do business in Saudi Arabia, prepare yourself for a unique experience. The Saudi corporate world is perhaps the most foreign of any of the Gulf nations - and in all likelihood, you are going to have to remain flexible and to learn new skills, in order to make a real success of your time in the country.
It is vitally important to understand that Saudi society is underpinned by fervent belief in the tenets of Islam. Unlike in western countries, where someone might be devoutly Christian in their personal lives, but happy to separate these convictions from their professional lives - in Saudi Arabia, it is important for expats to understand that the presence of Islam is constant and all-pervasive. It might perhaps be difficult for irreligious expats to conceive of, but they need to understand that, as far as your Saudi business associates are concerned, nothing in life will transpire, that hasn't been divinely ordained. Many frustrated expatriates have written this off as 'fatalism' - or perhaps, even passivity - but it is, really, just another world-view, and as a guest of the country, you should do your best to understand and respect it, at all times.
The business culture of Saudi Arabia is prototypically Arabic, in that a great emphasis is placed on personal relationships between business associates - Saudi businessmen will always prefer to do business with people they are familiar with, or people who they feel they can trust. You will have to remain patient during your first meetings with your new Saudi business partners - a significant chunk of time will be devoted to 'getting to know each other', before any 'actual business' is conducted. The management style that predominates in Saudi Arabia is paternalistic and strictly hierarchical - decisions are made at the top level, and clear, direct instructions are then filtered down. To expect anything more egalitarian, would fly in the face of the established culture and traditions of the country.
There is no specific etiquette regarding the exchanging of business cards in Saudi Arabia - but if you use them, make sure your details are printed in Arabic on the reverse side of your card.
Business etiquette in Saudi Arabia reflects the intimate relationship between spiritual, personal and professional life mentioned above. Maintaining eye contact is extremely important in Saudi Arabia - you will be judged on your sincerity by your ability to hold someone's gaze. In Saudi Arabia, business meetings will most likely be lengthy, and subject to numerous interruptions and personal digressions. While this might be frustrating to those who are used to keeping 'on the clock', and tackling an 'agenda' at meetings, don't become frustrated - rather, endeavour to fit in and excercise as much patience as possible. You will be judged on your conduct in meetings, so treat them as necessary parts of the relationship-building process. Business negotiations in Saudi Arabia can become heated, however raised voices are considered a sign of passion, considered a valuable trait in the business world.
Despite the heat, business dress in Saudi Arabia is strictly smart, formal and conservative - especially for women, who must take extreme care not to wear anything too revealing. It is, in fact, one of the responsibilities of the Saudi Matawain (religious police) to enforce modest dress - and suffice it to say, expats do not want to fall foul of this organisation. The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, though English is widely spoken and widely understood in the business world. Hours of business are generally from 8am to 12pm, and then 3pm to 6pm, from Saturday to Thursday. Friday is a day of rest.
Despite the complex maze of social rules, doing business in Saudi Arabia is considered relatively easy in regulatory terms, and the country is ranked 11th out of 183 countries on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business scale.
Saudi Arabia has a typical desert climate of blistering hot days and cool nights, and is one of the driest countries in the world. Summers can be extremely hot with temperatures rising to 130ºF (55ºC) in some areas. The higher inland areas are cooler. Coastal cities are humid and hot year round. Sandstorms blow anywhere in the country, some lasting for days.
Saudi Arabia has a good telephone network. The country code is +966 and the outgoing international code 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0027 for South Africa). City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)1 for Riyadh. Mobile telephone service providers operate GSM 900 networks, and there are Internet facilities in most cities.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country in which Islamic law is strictly enforced. No alcohol, pork products or religious books and artefacts not related to Islam are permitted in the country. There are no bars in Saudi Arabia, and alcohol is served nowhere to anyone of any religious persuasion. Dress should be conservative at all times, and women should take particular care not to offend. Visitors are advised to familiarise themselves with behaviour and dress codes before entering the country. Homosexual behaviour and adultery are illegal and can carry the death penalty. Photography of local people, government buildings, military installations and palaces is not allowed, and women are not permitted to drive. Religious customs should be respected, particularly during the month of Ramadan when eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture. The right hand should be used for everything, including eating and the giving and receiving of things, as the left is considered unclean. It is illegal to hold two passports, and second passports will be confiscated if discovered by immigration authorities.
Travellers to Saudi Arabia do not have to pay duty on 600 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500g tobacco; or perfume or cultured pearls for personal use. Duty is payable on cameras and other electronic goods, and refunds on these are available if the articles are re-exported within 90 days. Strictly prohibited are food products and carbonated water, animals and birds and palm trees or derivatives thereof. Other prohibited items include alcohol, firearms, drugs, pork products and natural pearls.
125 volts, 50Hz, but 215 volts, 60Hz in some (more remote) areas.
Getting around in Saudi Arabia is relatively simple due to long-distance buses that link most of the country. The buses are modern and comfortable, but sometimes inconvenient as many stations are well outside the city centres. There is a train that runs between Riyadh, Al-Hofuf and Dammam.
Taxis are available, and the only practical means of transportation within cities. Fairs are usually metered, but you may need to haggle outside of Riyadh. Renting a car in Saudi Arabia is easy, and the roads are good and petrol is cheap. However, Saudi drivers are considered some of the worst in the world, so driving in Saudi Arabia is not for the faint of heart.
Anyone arriving in Saudi Arabia from a country infected with yellow fever requires a vaccination certificate for entry. People travelling to perform Hajj and Umrah are required to be inoculated against meningitis before travel and must present a vaccination certificate on arrival; a meningococcal vaccine is recommended for all travellers. Respiratory infections are common among pilgrims during the Hajj season; Influenza vaccine is recommended for all pilgrims during the Hajj. Not compulsory, but definitely advisable, is vaccination against hepatitis A, polio and typhoid fever. There is a malaria risk in the south and parts of the western region of the country and visitors should take advice on anti-malarial precautions at least four weeks before leaving; an outbreak of cerebral malaria has occurred in Jizan. Rift Valley Fever has also occurred, mainly in the Jizan area. Dengue fever has been reported. An outbreak of bird flu was confirmed in April 2007; however the risk is low for travellers, but contact with domestic, caged and wild birds should be avoided and poultry and egg dishes well cooked. Food poisoning is a risk outside the good hotels. Visitors should only drink bottled water. The standard of medical care and facilities in Saudi Arabia is high, but treatment is expensive, therefore health insurance is strongly advised for all travellers.
Arabic is the official language in Saudi Arabia, but English is widely understood.
The Saudi currency is the Riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. Foreign currency can be changed at banks and exchange bureaux. Banking hours are generally Saturday to Wednesday from 8am to 12pm and 4pm to 8pm. All major credit cards are accepted at shops, hotels and restaurants in Saudi Arabia. Travellers cheques are also accepted and ATMs are widely available. There are no taxes in Saudi Arabia, so shopping is good value.
All visitors require a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, and visas are only granted to those with sponsorship in the country. Tourist visas are granted only to selected groups on a limited basis. Everyone who enters the Kingdom should have a valid passport with at least six months validity in addition to the appropriate visa and a return ticket, with all necessary documents. Women entering the Kingdom alone must be met by a sponsor or male relative and have confirmed accommodation for the duration of their stay. Entry may be refused to any visitor arriving in an intoxicated state, men wearing shorts, women in tight clothing or with legs and arms exposed, and to couples displaying affection in public. There are special requirements for pilgrims undertaking the Hajj or visiting holy sites. It is strongly recommended not to hold passports containing any Israeli visa or stamp when entering or transiting Saudi Arabia as entry may be refused.
Travel safety in Saudi Arabia is a concern. The US and British authorities believe terrorists may be planning further attacks against Westerners and in places associated with Westerners in Saudi Arabia following recent incidents in which foreign nationals were killed. Aviation interests remain a possible terrorist target. Attacks in the past have included kidnappings, targeted shootings and bombings of shopping areas, government offices and car bombs. Visitors who choose to risk entering the country should ensure they have individual security arrangements, remain vigilant, keep a low profile and avoid public gatherings. Visitors should be particularly alert in public places frequented by foreigners such as shopping malls, restaurants and hotels and in the desert outside Riyadh. Pilgrims are increasingly being targeted by pickpockets in Mecca and Medina and are advised to take care of personal possessions. In recent years pilgrims have died due to overcrowding and stampedes at events during Haj. Religious police patrols rigorously enforce codes of behaviour and dress prescribed by Islamic law and visitors should respect these.
Service charge is usually included in bills at hotels. Elsewhere a tip of 10% can be offered for services rendered. Taxi drivers can be given 10% of the fare.