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Business etiquette, language & culture

Overview

Saudi Arabia is the strictest of all Muslim countries and behaviour in public is subject to inflexible rules. These include:

  • strict segregation of the sexes in restaurants and hotel swimming pools/gyms

  • no public displays of affection

It is important for people doing business or living in Saudi Arabia to understand the laws and obey them.

Eating and drinking

Alcohol consumption is forbidden and prison sentences vary from a few weeks to several months, with or without flogging. Anyone caught smuggling or distributing alcohol can face a long prison sentence. Do not arrive in Saudi Arabia under the influence of alcohol.

No pork or pork products are allowed.

Medication

If you bring medication with you, carry a doctor’s prescription.

Pornography

The possession of pornographic material, or of illustrations of scantily dressed people, especially women, is prohibited.

Drugs

The punishment for smuggling drugs includes the death penalty.

Photography/electronic devices

Photographing government buildings, military installations, and palaces is not allowed.  You should avoid photographing local people. Binoculars should not be brought into Saudi Arabia and may be confiscated at the port of entry.

Electronic devices may be screened by customs officials on arrival and departure.

Passports

It is illegal to hold two passports in Saudi Arabia. Second passports will be confiscated by the immigration authorities if they are discovered.

You should carry a photocopy of your passport for identification. Make sure you have included emergency contact details.

Sexual behaviour

Homosexual acts and extra-marital sexual relations, including adultery, are illegal and can be subject to severe penalties or the death penalty. It is also illegal to be transgender. Transgender people travelling to Saudi Arabia are likely to face significant difficulties and risks if this is discovered by the authorities. See the UK Government’s information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel, at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-foreign-travel-advice.

 

Religion

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country in which Islamic law is strictly enforced. You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend, especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas. It is forbidden to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan. The law is strictly enforced.

In 2019, the holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on 6th May and finish on 9th June. See the UK Government’s advice about travelling during Ramadan, at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travelling-during-ramadan.

The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal; as is an intention to convert others. However, the Saudi authorities accept the private practice of religions other than Islam, and you can bring a Bible into the country as long as it is for your personal use. Importing larger quantities than this can carry severe penalties.

The majority of Saudis are Sunni Muslims and many are Wahhabis (puritans), although there are considerable numbers of Shia Muslims in the Eastern Province. Muslims pray five times a day and all shops and many offices will close to observe prayer times.

Religious police

The Muttawa are members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. They maintain a vigilant eye on Saudis and foreigners to ensure that they conform to the Kingdom's strict dress and behaviour codes. Women approached by the Muttawa and asked to cover their hair, should do so and move on quickly to avoid confrontation.

 

Travel

Since 24th June 2018 women have been legally able to obtain a licence to drive a car, motorbike and scooter. You should seek guidance from the local authorities on how to apply for a local licence.

Traffic fines

Saudi Arabia has many traffic cameras waiting to catch drivers going through red lights or speeding. The problem is, many people do not know they have been caught and fined until they try to leave the Kingdom and are refused exit by immigration. There is a desk at the airport where you can pay fines, but if it is closed, you will have to wait until it opens.

There are several options to avoid this situation. First of all, do not break any traffic laws and you will be ok. If you are worried you might have been caught by a camera and you have an Iqama you can text the number to 88993 if you are on SAWA mobile, or 625555 if you are on Mobily, and you will get a reply telling you if you have any fines, which you can then pay before you try and leave the country.

Alternatively you could call 01-292 8888 through your landline to know the status of your fine. Just follow the instructions after dialling this number.

The Ministry of Interior has more information about traffic violations at: www.moi.gov.sa.

 

Business practices

A lot of time has to be spent getting to know people and establishing relationships before doing business. There are many differences between the East, West and Central Provinces of the country, so do not generalise. Similarly, be wary of making comparisons with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) markets.

It can be quite common for meetings to be interrupted by phone calls and people coming in, but it is important not be put off by this. Patience and courtesy are essential.

Office hours

  • Public sector working days are Sunday to Thursday.

  • Government office hours are mainly 8.00am to 3.00pm.

  • Private sector working days are usually Sunday to Thursday 8.00am to 12.00pm and 4.30pm to 7.00pm.

  • Increasingly many private companies are moving to a more practical 8.00am to 5.00pm working day.

  • Banking hours are 9.30am to 4.30pm Sunday to Thursday.

  • Shopping stores generally open weekdays 10.00am to 12.00pm, Friday 4.00pm to 10.00pm.

  • All offices and shops close five times a day for prayer: Fajr at sunrise, Dhuhr at noon, Asr at around 3.00pm, Maghrib at sunset, and Isha at night.

  • The weekend is Friday and Saturday.

Working hours during the holy month of Ramadan are reduced – Government offices should be open from 10.00am to 3.00pm. In the private sector many businesses will open at night in Ramadan, normally 10.00pm to 1.00am.

It is best to avoid non-essential business travel around Ramadan and Eid festivals.

Dress

Saudi businessmen often wear the traditional thobe and shemagh head dress in public. For foreign businessmen, business suits are the norm.

Saudi women and foreign women must wear an abaya – a full length black cloak in public. A headscarf need not be worn, but should be carried with you in case you are told by the religious police to cover your head. Under the abaya, women visitors are advised to wear a full-length dress or trousers and top with high neck and long sleeves, in case you are invited to remove the abaya in less-formal business meetings.

 

Saudi Arabia public holidays 

2019

Date:

Holiday:

Details:

Wednesday 20th March

March Equinox

Season

Monday 6th May

Ramadan begins

Observance

Wednesday 5th June

Eid al-Fitr

National holiday

Thursday 6th June

Eid al-Fitr Holiday

National holiday

Friday 7th June

Eid al-Fitr Holiday

National holiday

Saturday 8th June

Eid al-Fitr Holiday

National holiday

Friday 21st June

June Solstice

Season

Monday 12th August

Eid al-Adha

National holiday

Sunday 1st September

Muharram (Muslim New Year)

Observance

Monday 23rd September

September Equinox

Season

Monday 23rd September

Saudi National Day

National holiday

Sunday 10th November

Prophet's Birthday

Observance

Sunday 22nd December

December Solstice

Season



(NB some dates may be subject to change)


 

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