Relocating to Saudi Arabia: What You Need to Know
Saudi Arabia is the largest state in western Asia and is known for its large oil and gas reserves. With major cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, the country is a frequent destination for international assignees. Our latest Emerging Market Watch on Saudi Arabia discusses the key challenges associated with living and working in Saudi Arabia, including housing, schooling, transportation, security, and language and cultural differences.
Arguably one of the key challenges Western assignees and their families may face when moving to Saudi Arabia is the difference in culture and the importance of religion and Sharia (or Islamic) Law. Religion influences all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. The country is home to two of Islam’s most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, and strict adherence to Sharia Law, such as the prohibitions listed below, is mandatory at all times.
• Alcohol is forbidden
• Public displays of affection are not tolerated
• Non-related men and women cannot be together in public, including in cars
• Consumption of pork is forbidden
Businesses also close during daily prayers, and this needs to be considered when trying to complete daily tasks. Shopping trips, for example, should be scheduled between prayer times.
Rules for Women
Women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia; a driver must be designated for them. Regular bus service is, however, available to women who live in compounds. Women are also required to cover their entire bodies (from wrists to ankles) whilst out in public. Depending on the city, a head scarf or abaya (long gown) may have to be worn as well, although such dress is not necessary when at home or simply walking around the compound.
Understanding Arabic—the official language—can be another challenge when relocating to Saudi Arabia. Arabic has its own alphabet, read from right to left, and it’s often thought to be quite challenging to learn; but it’s useful to know at least some basic Arabic phrases, such as standard greetings and “yes” and “no.” Learning numbers is also beneficial in order to understand the prices when shopping and for those who work in office buildings and need to identify floor levels and room numbers.
Business Etiquette in Saudi Arabia
Here are some of Cartus’ best practices for those doing business in Saudi Arabia:
• Relationships are key in business, and international assignees should take the time to cultivate them.
• A firm handshake may be expected in Western countries, but in Saudi Arabia, it comes across as aggressive.
• Expect meetings to start late, run over stated end times, and be interrupted or cancelled. Meetings will often have an unfixed agenda and can dip in and out of personal conversation. This may seem unprofessional but is actually a way to diffuse tension and give attendees time to re-evaluate their business position.
• As in many Arab countries, great emphasis is placed on body language; so maintain good eye contact during conversations and expect your colleagues and business contacts to be tactile.
• Where possible, use verbal, rather than written, communication; more positive and quicker results may be achieved by meeting or telephoning someone, rather than emailing them.
Cross-cultural training is important for assignees and families relocating to Saudi Arabia. Language training is also advised, and we recommend that assignees learn some basic Arabic phrases, as well as numbers and standard greetings, which are helpful in getting around.
For a detailed review on relocating to Saudi Arabia, read our Saudi Arabia Market Watch, watch our On the Ground video on Saudi Arabia, and view our Resource Page and On the Ground video series for additional information on moving to other Emerging Market locations.