Working in Saudi Arabia is both exciting as well as a challenge. A few tips for business visitors and for those who are on a short trip to the kingdom is not out of place. Prior knowledge of what and when to do before meeting your hosts always helps.
Saudis are quite hospitable, particularly when it involves business visitors. The first rule is to dress business-like: a suit with a tie should do, atleast for the first day. You will find that your hosts would be in their 'thobes' - the traditional Arabic dress - a long white robe . They would also be wearing a headgear - a white or pink squares in a white cloth with a black ring around the head. The weather is quite hot most of the year, but once indoor, you will find that all buildings are air conditioned and quite comfortable.
Remember to give a warm and firm handshake. If you are entering a room where a group of Saudis are seated, start always from the person on your right hand side and move towards your left anti-clockwise. Do not forget to greet each person with a "Salaam Alaikum" with a slight bow of your head and a genuine smile. It goes down well with your hosts.
While exchanging business cards, NEVER EVER keep your host's business card on your hip pocket. It is considered as an ultimate insult. Also, while seated in a chair, avoid sitting cross-legged such that one of your shoes point at your hosts.
You will usually be offered a traditional drink, called gahwa, which is a small cup of hot water mixed with cardamom powder. Never refuse it, but if you find it unpalatable, atleast try to take a sip rather than refusing it outright. It is usual for the Saudis to keep filling your cup once it is empty. This drink is normally taken along with dates.
Before you proceed to your meeting, be well-informed about the prayer timings. It keeps changing slightly every day, and it is quite normal for business meetings to be put on hold during prayer times. If you are a Muslim, you would be expected to participate in the prayers along with them. In case you are wearing a gold chain around your neck, try not to make it too obvious. Also, try to avoid wearing gold bracelets. These are considered taboo by Saudis as they are supposed to be worn only by women. Wearing a gold ring is considered okay, and usually nobody will make a fuss about it.
Patience is a very big virtue and do take time to develop your business relationship. Saudi Arabia is an extremely close-knit society and family and tribal connections matter top on the priority list. Establishing personal rapport with your hosts and developing genuine friendship would almost always result in a successful business relationship.
NEVER EVER discuss about religion, politics, monarchy, terrorism, security and such controversial issues, even on the sidelines. These are extremely sensitive matters. Topics which are considered okay are weather, football (the Saudis are a football-crazy nation and are extremely well-informed about the game), travel, hobbies, etc.
If you are giving a Powerpoint presentation, try to use bullets and avoid long texts. Always begin by mentioning the history of your company and do not directly barge into the main topic. Pay attention to the body language of your hosts, as it would reveal more than what a thousand words would not. Try to make the discussion more interactive by involving your hosts, rather than simply lecturing them.
Saudis usually associate any reference to time with the words "Insha Allah", which literally means "God willing". It could mean a few days, hours or months depending on the context, but normaly when they make a promise, it is usually kept. Do not expect miracles to happen right from the first meeting.
Never ever use your left hand. If your right hand is dirty or even wet, never ever shake hands with anyone before cleaning it thoroughly. If you are caught in such a situation that you must shake hands, offer your wrist instead. Strange as it may sound, it is considered quite okay in this part of the world, rather than withdrawing or not offering your hand, which would be considered offensive.
Remember the names of your hosts, or atleast a few of the important ones. Always address them by their last names, more so in the first few meetings.
When you complete your meeting, remember to once again shake hands with each of your hosts and do not forget to thank each one of them. Once you reach home, follow it up with an email thanking them - it goes down well with the Saudis. Remember, building a strong inter-personal relationship is the basis for a long-lasting business relationship!