If you’re American and new to doing business with Saudis, then this is for you!
We're going to give you a quick-fire overview of some of the most common challenges faced by the two cultures when doing business together.
Obviously, the two cultures are very different in lots of ways, however, they also do have lots in common.
Religion and conservatism, for example, are two such similarities between the countries.
So, make a note that this article should not be interpretered as wanting to only highlight differences.
Differences, or at least ignorance of them, is what much of the time leads to problems, so it is in that context that we focus on them here and in cultural training.
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Common Cultural Challenges for Americans Doing Business with Saudis
Saudis have their own challenges when working with Americans, and we shall naturally touch upon some of these.
The information here is aimed at Americans wanting to get some key pointers on the main cultural differences between the two countries. Not the other way around.
It’s focus is on business and draws upon our experience of delivering Saudi-specific cultural training to organisations from the USA and Saudi Arabia.
There are plenty of cultural differences we could explore, including around hierarchy, communication, responsibility, decision making and negotiations.
4 Key Cultural Differences between Americans and Saudis in Business
For the sake of brevity, we’ve chosen 4 of the key cultural differences we think you should be aware of.
These all pretty much come down to differences in values between the two cultures.
1. Approach to Time
This is perhaps the biggest cultural difference of all. It’s common to find Americans frustrated with missed deadlines, delays and the general slower pace to business in Saudi Arabia.
Things don’t happen quickly in Saudi Arabia. There is no rush. Time is not money. Time is fluid and time can be bent, manipulated and stretched. Man is not in control, God is, so things happen when they are supposed to.
One thing you need to get straight, right from the get-go, is that if you apply your understanding of time and how quickly things should happen, you will be disappointed.
Always give yourself more time and slow down! Read more about Time in Arab Culture.
Did you know The Business Culture Complexity Index™ ranks Saudi Arabia as one of the more difficult countries for foreigners to do business in.
That's why it's so important to learn about the culture.
2. Expectations of Hospitality
Saudi culture was formed in the deserts, where receiving a guest from another tribe was a gift from God to be taken care of. This mentality still exists today.
Many Americans fail to understand just how crucial hospitality is – both being a host and a guest. Saudis love to eat and drink, with most meetings starting and then punctuated with tea, coffee and sweet treats.
Failing to show your gratitude for their hospitality, or failing to be a gracious host, doesn’t help build trust.
To find out more, read Hospitality & Food in Arab Business Culture.
3. Importance of Relationships
People in Saudi want to build a relationship before business is done, not after. They like to know and trust someone as this is all part of protecting 'face', which we’ll come onto.
If Saudis don’t like you, they will have a hard time wanting to do business with you. This is why its so important to spend time in the country investing in relationship building.
For many Americans, spending time doing and talking about everything other than business when you should be working, feels wrong. For Saudis, they don’t see it this way. Time invested in knowing each other now saves time in the future.
Americans need to temper down their focus on the task(s) at hand, and spend a little more time on the personal stuff.
Read more on the Importance of Relationships for Business in the Middle East.
4. Shame, Face and Honour
Your reputation is a big deal in Saudi Arabia. What may be an innocent joke for an American can be taken as a slight on their family’s honour by a Saudi.
Face and shame are huge drivers in Saudi behaviour and the communication style. Unlike Americans, they tend not to “say it how it is” but to say what they think is needed to give/save/protect face.
This is why Americans can find Saudis very vague when they communicate and why Saudis can find Americans brash and rude.
Americans need to be aware that offering frank opinions or thoughts isn’t necessarily the way things are done in Saudi.
To explore this concept more, check out Shame, Face and Honour in Arab Culture.
Read more about Saudi Culture
We hope these insights into some of the main cultural differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are useful.
If you want to learn more about Saudi Arabia, here are some great resources for you.
- Saudi Arabia Country Profile – a free overview of Saudi society, customs and culture
- Saudi Arabia Country Insight – an in-depth overview of the country inc. etiquette and business tips.
- Saudi Management Culture – an overview of the management style in Saudi Arabia.
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Have a peek at some of the video, or see the sample below.
Infographic: Cultural Differences in Business Between The USA and Saudi Arabia
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Main image by Ahmed Nashed