While I knew a lot about Saudi Arabian culture before my time conducting business with Saudis, there were still moments when I had to take time to understand cultural differences. Though, with the right preparation and mindset, any woman can become a successful businesswoman in Saudi Arabia. Here is a general guide for how to conduct business based on my personal experiences.
One of the first important steps for conducting business in Saudi Arabia is to eliminate all stereotypes from your mind. Culture and heritage are a very important part of the Saudi Arabian lifestyle, and it is important to respect that, but the country is not the same as it was 10 years ago. Today, alongside many other changes, women are allowed to enter the country without being accompanied by a man which opens doors to more opportunities for foreign businesswomen. It is also important to be aware that while laws may be adjusted or repealed, some people may still be holding onto traditional values. It is best to go into business aware of the fact that we all hold biases and preconceived ideas, but with the conscious decision to keep an open mind while still holding onto your own ideals.
Saudi people believe hierarchy is natural and a necessary part of maintaining order and harmony. Hierarchies are present in all relationships, from the family to the workplace and everyone is expected to know their place and how it functions. Today, women are more visible in the workplace but because it can still be a challenge, it is important to know how to navigate the hierarchical standards still in place.
While women have told stories about being ignored or dismissed by male Saudi counterparts, it is dependent on the status one holds. When first conducting business, establish your “rank” and qualifications to define your position. You can do this by declaring your job title and the prestige you hold within your company, by presenting your qualifications and experience, or by showing recommendations from a local partner. By establishing yourself in this way, you can effectively “pull rank” the more experienced and senior you are, do not hesitate to do so.
Saudi Arabia’s culture is deeply driven by relationships. People like to spend time building relationships and getting to know one another to build trust. While many Saudi colleagues often share a meal together or attend an event to build trust and cement a business relationship, these outings need to be reconsidered for women, as they may seem to cross a professional boundary.
Ways to rework these outings would be to take out a whole group of colleagues instead of just one person. Another option would be to have male colleagues of yours attend an event with male Saudi colleagues. Remember that establishing a business relationship will take more time and maneuvering in Saudi Arabia, and remain patient and open-minded.
Saudi Arabia is known for more indirect communication, especially when conducting business with women.
In their culture, they will shy away from anything that may embarrass someone. Oftentimes they would rather be polite and hospitable; because of this, when speaking with foreign women, Saudi men might give you answers that please you, instead of what they may mean. Furthermore, if you haven’t quite built a foundation of trust or rapport, they may keep details to themselves or refrain from giving you all the information you need. To combat this, you can ask more open-ended questions rather than those that invite a simple “yes,” or “no.” Avoid any sense of commitment in the framing of your questions or any requests you may have. You could also talk to people away from others in order to reduce the risk of loss of face.
As previously mentioned, culture is an important part of the Saudi Arabian lifestyle. To respect that I have some tips for maintaining proper etiquette.
While women are not legally required to cover their hair, dressing conservatively is still expected. The standard is to be covered from neck to ankle and to have sleeves to your wrists. Make-up is also fine and is normal to wear in a professional context but in more minimal styles.
Eye contact is minimal across the sexes; be sure to break eye contact often.
Do not take it personally if some Saudi men do not shake your hand. Some do not shake hands with women outside of their families out of respect.
Similarly, some men may not want to sit too close to a woman and may even prefer not to have a meeting alone with a woman and to have others join any business proceedings that may occur.
If you are out and about, be prepared for locals who may stare at you. Don’t be intimidated, they are simply curious! Just smile and walk on by.
Overall, the people are respectful, and business is more than just a transaction. They value each relationship built by trust and mutual respect. Learning to conduct business in Saudi Arabia can bring you a wealth of opportunities.
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