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Doing Business in Saudi Arabia? How to Make a Good Impression


Saudi Arabia is on a mission.

Their ambitious 2030 Vision seeks to create an economy for the future based around trade and tourism.

To do so they need foreign investment but before you jump on the next plane to Riyadh, it might be worth pressing pause and taking some time in understanding how business gets done over there.

Don’t be flying in thinking, “we all do business the same.”

Oh no. This is a country steeped in religious and cultural influences which, if you don’t understand, can work against you.

In comparison to some of its more glamorous neighbours, doing business in Saudi Arabia requires a nuanced approach.

If you don’t know how to build trust, it’s unlikely people will want to do business with you.

If you go out to Saudi Arabia for business, then be aware it’s about trust.

But trust isn’t built by showing your sales figures or producing a water-tight contract. Saudis want to know the person they are doing business with both professionally and personally.

This means spending time with people. So be prepared for lots of conversations that are completely unrelated to business over many glasses of tea, lunches or dinners. Get personal.

Also, ensure you meet people as often as possible. Flying into Saudi Arabia for a few days at a time is no good. Aim for an extended period in the country and concentrate on relationship building.

If you underestimate the importance of face and honour, you’re finished in Saudi Arabia.

One’s sense of face, honour and public standing is an acutely sensitive matter.

The value placed on these goes back to their tribal past history whereby face and honour were ways of establishing rules and laws around conduct and behaviour. Individuals make great efforts to protect not only their face, but also that of their family, group, tribe or team.

Face can be both given and taken. For example, offering praise to someone elevates not only their face, but yours too as the giver of praise. Paying for the bill at a restaurant is a basic yet daily means of gaining face and enhancing your reputation for generosity.

When communicating with Saudis be very careful what you say and how you say it. Westerners tend to be very direct and Saudis can see this as aggressive and sometimes offensive. For example, challenging someone’s idea in front of others will undoubtedly make them lose face.

As such, it’s really important that you are extra cautious as to how you express your ideas and opinions. Always use tact, diplomacy and a gracious attitude.

“Our Kingdom is the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, the most sacred sites on earth, and the direction of the Kaaba (Qibla) to which more than a billion Muslims turn at prayer”

Islam plays a pivotal role in Saudi business life as per the quote above from the online Vision 2030 document.

Before doing business in the country it's essential you understand how Islam permeates almost everything and how Sharia law can impact you.

A basic example is the use of the Islamic calendar. The year 0 is 622, the year in which the Prophet Muhammad escaped persecution and fled to the city of Medina. The calendar is used in all forms of communication, whether in business, media or education.

Another example relates to the reading of the 5 times a day prayer. Following the call to prayer, which you will hear wherever you are, everything literally closes for 15-20 minutes to enable people to pray. If you are in a meeting, it is likely to also stop for a while.

Sharia law is simply the Islamic body of law and regulations developed over time by scholars and Islamic jurists. It covers what is permissible or impermissible is central to life for Muslims. The principle of usury, for example, is impermissible in Islam which has led to the development of Islamic Finance.

Doing Business in Saudi Arabia?

These examples are all high-level indicators, but if you are looking to do business in Saudi Arabia, then take some time to understand the place and the people.

We offer a great online training course on doing business in Saudi Arabia which is accessible via our Learning Management System.

Photo by Hala AlGhanim on Unsplash

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