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How to water long-lasting relationships in the business desert of Saudi Arabia

Each and every country tells a thousand and one stories of interesting facts and cultural quirks. So what makes ‘the Kingdom’ different and a worthwhile business investment? For starters, it is one of the world’s fastest growing countries and largest economies (ranking 25 with a GDP growth in 2012 of 6%+). It is also home to one of the driest regions in the world and the longest stretch of sand, known as Rub’ al-Khali, which hides a treasure trove of oil reserves waiting to be unearthed. It is hardly a wonder then that this country plays first fiddle in the world’s orchestra of oil.

Nevertheless, as with any successful global business venture, it helps being culturally aware of your target market in order to avoid cultural blunders. Not only will your expertise of this country’s culture give you a competitive edge, but also help improve the profitability of your company. It will further reflect positively on your business relationship showing respect of cultural diversity. So if you don’t want to be caught stranded in the vast desert of Saudi Arabian conventions, the ideal way to prevent drought from affecting your business ties is to BE PREPARED!

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. the Kingdom tower is visible in the cityscape.

B usiness is conducted Saturday to Wednesday, as weekends in Saudi Arabia include Thursday and Friday. Doing business with Saudis also involves obtaining official government permission before entering and leaving the country, which necessitates seeking the assistance of a Saudi sponsor (wakeel). Their role entails acting as an intermediary and organising appointments with the appropriate people.

E mploy conservatism throughout your business negotiations as Saudia Arabia is a deeply conservative and Islamic society.

P ublic interaction between men and women in business is particularly limited. Although Western women are more accepted today, it is often with a great deal of reservation. If women do wish to play party to any business meetings, they must adhere to specific conventions

  1. a) Clothing must be appropriate i.e. indoors, loose fitting clothes are required covering the knees, elbows and collarbones (trousers not recommended), whilst in public, an abaya must be worn.
  2. b) Women must be in the company of a male colleague in order to be part of any negotiations; however, some Saudi businessmen might well prohibit it.

R amadan is part of the Muslim faith, observed by Saudi’s in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is imperative therefore, that westerners be sensitive to this month of fasting, by avoiding eating in the company of those fasting or in public. It might be advisable to delay business trips during this religious festival.

E tiquette and customs in Saudi Arabia follow various rules

  1. Gifts should be carefully thought out before presenting them to your potential business colleagues. Alcohol is not advisable, unless you are absolutely sure that they partake in its consumption.
  2. Proper business etiquette requires foreigners to attend meetings armed with some key Arabic phrases to show respect, as well as understand forms of address. Individuals are addressed by their first name and title.

 P atience is most definitely a required virtue. Since trust plays an important role in Saudi business, similar to a first date, they will be sizing you up and figuring out if they want to take the relationship any further. Trust is like the seed of a plant, it takes time to grow. The result will depend on how the plant is looked after; nurtured with care, the relationship will develop into something long-lasting, left to wither, it will die.

A sking after a Saudi’s wife should never be part of conversational icebreakers. Enquiring after family and their health is a more accepted topic of conversation.

R ight hands should be used to shake your business counterparts’ hands, as well as for giving and receiving anything, such as business cards (get them translated properly into Arabic) as the left hand is considered impure, given that it is used for the toilet.

E xpect business meetings with Saudi businesspeople to be interrupted by prayers, as they pray five times daily.

D ecisions regarding business negotiations are slow-burners. Attempting to rush the process is futile and could potentially damage the relationship. Saudi society is like a bureaucratic onion, therefore any decision-making demands peeling back layers of approval.

Despite the cultural variables when doing business in Saudi Arabia, according to the 2012 World Bank ‘Ease of Doing Business Index’, it ranks 12th.  Just be sure to swat up on the many cultural nuances before attempting to initiate business.

Sunset in the Rub Al Khali Desert, Dunes in The Empty Quarter, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

By Madeline Prusmann (Project Manager) December 2016

 


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