How to adjust your business to Saudi Arabian culture? Why do business with Saudi? Saudi Arabia is an increasingly important economic and political power. The Saudi organizations are getting larger, multi-faceted, and increased controls, what has been estimated, as a quarter of all the known oil reserves in the world (Ray, 2005). As managers from the Saudi and other cultures continue to interact, an understanding of cultural similarities and differences can facilitate cross-cultural communications and boundary spanning.
Recently, Golden and Veiga (2005) developed a cross-cultural boundary spanning model based on five cultural dimensions articulated by Hofstede (1980, 2001), and posited that effective cross-cultural boundary spanning by teams and organizations necessitates an understanding of these dimensions. This report uses a similar framework to understand how international companies could achieve success in Saudi Arabia. High Context Communication Saudi Arabia is considered a very high context culture.
This means that the message people are trying to convey often relies heavily on other communicative cues such as body language and eye-contact rather than direct words. In this respect, people make assumptions about what is not said. In Saudi Arabian culture particular emphasis is placed on tone of voice, the use of silence, facial cues, and body language. It is vital to be aware of these non-verbal aspects of communication in any business setting in order to avoid misunderstandings. For instance, silence is often used for contemplation and you should not feel obliged to speak during these periods.
The historical journey which led to the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was notably one of triumph and misfortune. Prior to the emergence of Islam, the peninsula was divided between various nomadic Arab tribes and subject to invasion from a number of outside cultures. The creation of modern Saudi Arabia dates from 1932 when the late King Abdul Aziz AL-Saud unified the surrounding regions as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To this day the monarchy remains the central institution of the Saudi Arabian Government, governed on the basis of Islamic law (Shari’a).
The discovery of oil on March 3rd, 1953 transformed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from a purely trade-based economy to the largest exporter of petroleum in the world. This economical revolution paved the way for a greater industrial base and opened up the country to the business world. For those wishing to do business with Saudi Arabia an understanding of Saudi etiquette and the personal manner in which business is conducted is essential to success. Working practices in Saudi Arabia Generally speaking, business appointments in Saudi Arabia are necessary.
However, some Saudi business executives and officials may be reluctant to schedule an appointment until after their visitors have arrived. Appointments should be scheduled in accordance with the five daily prayer times and the religious holidays of Ramadan and Hajj. It is customary to make appointments for times of day rather than precise hours as the relaxed and hospitable nature of Saudi business culture may cause delays in schedule. The Saudi working week begins on Saturday and ends on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are the official days of rest.
Office hours tend to be 0900-1300 and 1630-2000 (Ramadan 2000-0100), with some regional variation. The concept of time in Saudi Arabia is considerably different to that of many Western cultures. Time is not an issue; therefore Saudi Arabians are generally unpunctual compared to Western standards. Despite this, it is unusual for meetings to encroach on daily prayers and you will be expected to arrive at appointments on time. Working relationships in Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabian business people prefer face-to-face meetings, as doing business in the Kingdom is still mostly done against an intensely personal background.
Establishing trust is an essential part of Saudi business culture; therefore cultivating solid business relationships before entering into business dealings is key to your success. Respect and friendship are values that are held very highly by the Arab people. In a business setting, favors based on mutual benefit and trust are ways of enhancing these cultural values. Due to the personal nature of business in Saudi Arabia, family influence and personal connections often take precedence over other governing factors. Islam Religious & Business Empathy / Sensitivity
Islam permeates all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. Some important considerations when planning business are: – On Fridays, the Islamic Sabbath, the community gathers for prayers at noon. Offices and many shops are closed on Fridays. – The holy festival of Ramadan occupies the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the dates vary each year. During this month Muslims observe a period of abstention (fasting during daylight hours), reflection and purification. – Ramadan and its ending, or breaking of the fast (Id al-Fitr, a three-day holiday) affects all business activities.
If visiting during Ramadan, be aware that there may be limited time for business meetings. – Check the Islamic calendar when planning business visits. Understanding Saudi Political & Legal Environment Saudi Arabia is a monarchy without elected representative institutions or political parties. It is ruled by King Fahd bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud; however, Crown Prince Abdullah has been the de facto ruler since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995. The Basic Law sets out the system of government, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the State.
The Basic Law provides that the Islamic holy book the Koran and the Sunna (tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad are the country’s Constitution. As custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, the Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to Islamic law. Neither the Government nor the society in general accepts the concept of separation of religion and state. The Majlis al-Shura, an appointed consultative body, debates, rejects and amends government-proposed legislation, holds oversight hearings over government ministries, and has the power to initiate legislation.
The Basic Law provides for an independent judiciary; however, high-ranking members of the royal family, who are not required to appear before the courts, and their associates occasionally influenced judges. Understanding Saudi Customs / Culture A number of expressions punctuate conversation in Saudi Arabia and the most frequent is the term Insh’allah (‘if God wills’), which underlines a strong belief that the course of events cannot be controlled by the individual. The term Bukra Insh’allah (‘tomorrow, God willing’) conveys the sense that ‘we will do things as soon as possible, but God will determine when that may be’.
Customs that are common throughout the Islamic world are well known. Some of these are not unique to the Arab environment, and are standard behaviors in a range of international situations. – Use your right hand, whenever possible, particularly for eating. If unsure, put your left hand in your pocket or behind your back. Never point with either hand. – Avoid postures where you may show the soles of your feet and generally avoid crossing your legs. – Avoid displays of anger or impatience. – Maintain eye contact with your host. Rapid shifts in eye contact may be construed as a lack of trust. – Handshakes may often be a clasp.
Do not offer to shake hands with an Arab woman, unless she offers her hand to you. Even then, only a gentle touch is appropriate. – When offered tea, coffee or snacks, accept, even if all is not consumed. – The offer of strong black coffee is a feature of Arab meetings and should never be refused. The cups are small and when you have enough, a polite ‘wiggle’ of your cup signifies to the server that you have had sufficient. – Learn the art of polite small talk, which will open most meetings, particularly introductory sessions. – Don’t ask about an Arab’s wife-but enquiries about ‘family’ are appropriate. Avoid comments on politics. – Maintain a calm demeanor, avoid brash conversation and adopt a non-aggressive body posture.
Effective Business communications The Arab business environment may feel very different for the newcomer. Experience and sensitivity to local customs will soon build confidence in the operating environment. As with business in Asia, personal relationships with Arabs are paramount. Trust must be established and proven. Any indication of a lack of trust will be apparent and can frustrate business relationships. As in Asia, a ‘yes’ can mean ‘perhaps’ or even just ‘I hear you. Suggest an alternative such as ‘How would you feel if ‘ or ‘would you be more comfortable with? ‘ Learn to become an active listener and when you speak, do so with brevity and confidence, maintaining emphasis on your paramount objectives. A friendly and open approach to business will always be appreciated. Arabs are highly verbal and do not place the same emphasis on written communications. A phone call will have more impact than a series of e-mails. Meetings what to expect the style of meetings in the Kingdom does vary. In many instances, you may be seeing an expatriate executive and the meeting will follow standard international practice.
Understanding Business practices in Saudi Arabia The customary greeting is “As-salam alaikum,” (peace be upon you) to which the reply is “Wa alaikum as-salam,” (and upon you be peace). When entering a meeting, general introductions will begin with a handshake. You should greet each of your Saudi counterparts individually, making your way around the room in an anti-clockwise direction. However, it is generally uncommon for a Muslim man to shake hands with a woman therefore; it is advisable for business women to wait for a man to offer his hand first. Business cards are common but not essential to Saudi Arabian business culture.
If you do intend to use business cards whilst in Saudi Arabia ensure that you have the information printed in both English and Arabic . Initial business meetings are often a way to become acquainted with your prospective counterparts. They are generally long in duration and discussions are conducted at a leisurely pace over tea and coffee. Time should be allocated for such business meetings, as they are an essential part of Saudi Arabian business culture. Gift giving in Saudi Arabia is appreciated but not necessary. Gifts are generally only exchanged between close friends and are seen as rather personal in nature.
It is also advised to refrain from overly admiring an item belonging to another, as they may feel obliged to give it to you. In the event that you are offered a gift, it is considered impolite and offensive if you do not accept it. Some of the characteristics of Arab meetings are: – Your host may interrupt the meeting at any time to answer any one of a number of phones, fixed and mobile, Correspond to an assistant seeking a signature or advice. – Other people may enter the meeting-often quite unrelated to your business. This is part of the accessible nature of Arab society.
Adopt a passive role, unless you are invited into the conversation. – Remain unaffected by what you perceive to be interruptions-be patient and await an appropriate opportunity to resume your presentation. – Other interruptions may occur-a call to prayer or a side conversation with another visitor. – Never exhibit impatience or tension if the meeting is not following your expectations. – Do not look for Western style structure in meetings-particularly a direct flow of discussion topics. – Make sure you keep your three ‘must win’ points in play during the meeting.
Do not get distracted from your objectives by what, in the Arab world, are standard meeting dynamics. – Develop a calm but firm negotiating style. – Sincerity and trust are the primary factors your host will be looking for when assessing you and your company as a business partner. Arranging meetings For the first visit, arranging quality meetings is crucial. – It is common for meetings to be rescheduled or delayed, so ensure you have other contacts in your visit plan to fill gaps. – While your host may delay the meeting, this does not suggest that the visitor can do the same. Always be punctual-it is expected of you.
The sense of flexibility is due to a variety of factors ranging from a call from a ‘higher authority’, ‘family business’ or prayer times. – Managing geography in Saudi Arabia is important-local advice is critical. Get good directions from the companies you are planning to visit. – If your host is unavailable, try to reschedule the meeting with his personal assistant. – It can be useful to leave behind a brief (pre-prepared) note on company letterhead, regretting that you were disappointed to miss your contact. – Outline your willingness to meet at an alternative time, along with your hotel and contact details.
This generally works. – As visits may involve rescheduled meetings, it is important to have itinerary flexibility. It is unrealistic to plan a two-day visit with five calls per day and presume your program will run to time. Dealing with Arab family oriented companies In Saudi Arabia, many major family companies rely on financial ‘gatekeepers’ to advise them on investment strategy and screen business proposals. The transition from an entrepreneurial culture to a professionally managed culture is one of the most demanding challenges for Arab family businesses.
Sound governance can, however, produce more devolution of decision-making and reduce dependence on the founder or principal owner. Saudi Arabian business etiquette (Do’s and Don’ts) – DO address your Saudi Arabian counterparts with the appropriate titles Doctor, Shaikh (chief), Mohandas (engineer),and Ustadh (professor), followed by his or her first name. If unsure, it is best to get the names and correct form of address of those you will be doing business with before hand. The word “bin” or “ibn” (son of) and “bint” (daughter of) may be present a number of times in a person’s name, as Saudi names are indicators of genealogy. DO abide by local standards of modesty and dress appropriately. As a sign of respect, it is essential to wear the proper attire during business meetings in Saudi Arabia. For men, conservative business suits are recommended. Women are required to wear high necklines, sleeves at least to the elbow, and preferably long skirts below the knee. – DO maintain strong eye-contact with your Saudi counterparts and expect a closer distance during conversation in both business and social settings. Both forms of communication are ways in which to strengthen trust and show respect in Saudi Arabia. DON’T appear loud or overly animated in public. This type of behavior is considered rude and vulgar. It is important to maintain and element of humility and display conservative behavior at all times. – DON’T rush your Arabian counterparts during business negotiations. Communications occur at a slower pace in Saudi Arabia and patience is often necessary. – DON’T assume during business meetings that the person who asks the most questions holds the most responsibility. In Saudi Arabia this person is considered to be the least respected or least important.
The decision maker is more often than not a silent observer. For this reason, if you are in a business meeting, it is advised not to ask all the questions. First Name or Title Addressing others with respect – The use of first names denotes more familiarity than in the west and there is no real equivalent to Mister, although the Saudis borrow the Hashemite noble title ;ldquo;Sayyed;rdquo; for this purpose in correspondence. – ;ldquo;Bin;rdquo; [or ben or ibn], preceding a name, particularly a middle name, means ;ldquo;son of. ;rdquo; ;ldquo;Bint;rdquo; [daughter of] is the female form. The perfect level of friendliness without undue familiarity is achieved by the use of the kunya. A man becomes known to his friends as ;ldquo;Abu;rdquo; [father of], followed by the name of his [usually eldest] son. It is quite acceptable to ask a mutual acquaintance if you don’t know a man’s kunya.
Somewhat less common is the female equivalent ;ldquo;Umm;rdquo; [mother of]. – Just as in most western monarchies, Saudi Princes are addressed as His/Your Royal Highness [Samu Maliki]. Similarly, non-royal ministers and ambassadors have the standard international designation of ;ldquo;Excellency. rdquo; – Several years ago, King Fahed abandoned the style of Majesty in favour of ;ldquo;Khadam al-Haramain ash-Sharifain. ;rdquo; This translates to ;ldquo;Steward of the Two Noble Sanctuaries;rdquo; but is often very badly rendered ;ldquo;Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques;rdquo; in English. – The titles Doctor, Shaikh [chief], Mohandas [engineer] and Ustadh [professor] are used, as on the Continent, in both the literal and honorific senses. ;ldquo;Shaikh;rdquo; should always be used the same as a knighthood in English–applied only to the first name, never the surname.
Public Behaviour – Although women are active in most, if not all five of the professions as well as such commercial activities as banking and some retail trade, they do not drive cars or travel alone and social encounters are segregated. Within same-sex encounters, however, the normally reserved Saudis are much more tactile than westerners in their behaviour. – Whilst loud speech and raucous laughter are deplored as vulgar, firm embraces, kissing on both cheeks and walking hand-in-hand are customary.
These are gestures of close, brotherly friendship and have no sexual implications whatever. – At the very least, Saudis always shake hands with every man present but not with women. If a man knows a woman well enough to touch her at all, he knows her well enough to kiss her [e. g. blood relatives]. The respectful greeting for Saudi Royalty is to kiss the shoulder. Success of International Business Culture will play a major part in the dynamics of the way we operated in international business circles. Managers today will need special skills in order to meet these challenges.
Language differences, culture awareness, and management skills are necessary for success. These challenges often lead to a debate in which is better for a company, expatriate or foreign national workers. There are pros and cons to the use of each, but it will depend on several factors to which managers will be better suited for the challenge of dealing with cultural differences. Business accomplishments in the future will depend greatly on the ability of managers to meet the challenges of culture and its impact on international commerce. Biz culture in Sau