Managing in Saudi Arabia
Working Successfully in an Islamic Culture
Are you thinking about relocating to Saudi Arabia?
Whether you're considering accepting a new position in the country, or an opportunity has arisen with your present employer, a move like this can be a big step.
Saudi Arabia is a rich, generous and incredibly hospitable nation. However, its culture, laws and expectations differ greatly from those in other parts of the world, so you probably have lots of questions. For example:
Will I be held to the same stringent Islamic laws as local Saudis?
Are women allowed to hold managerial positions?
Will I be allowed to drive a car?
This article explores what you need to know in order to live and work successfully in Saudi Arabia, and to get the best from your Saudi team.
This article is a general guide only. Saudi Arabia has a large population of foreign workers, which means you may be part of a very diverse team. Always use your own best judgment, depending on your situation.
Country and Culture
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom in the Middle East, located between Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia is located between Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, and Yemen.
Most of Saudi Arabia is made up of desert and semi-desert shrub land, and, as you might expect from such a region, the climate is hot and dry. In summer, temperatures often exceed 45°C (113°F), while winter temperatures rarely fall below 0°C (32°F). Rainfall is rare or nonexistent in most parts of the country.
The region has been inhabited for thousands of years and is steeped in history and tradition. Saudi Arabian art, street markets and religious buildings are vibrant and stunning, and Saudis take great pride in their historical and cultural heritage.
However, Saudi Arabia itself was only founded as a nation in 1932, and is now an absolute monarchy. This means that there are no political parties or national elections. Laws are based around the Quran and Islamic Sharia law.
Saudi Arabia is the world's largest exporter of oil and petroleum products. Its economy is strong and most Saudis enjoy a high standard of living. Their hospitality is legendary, but visitors are expected to behave in accordance with the country's religious beliefs, rules and traditions.
Saudi Arabia's official language is Arabic, but most Saudi professionals speak at least some English, and those who do business internationally will likely speak it fluently.
Saudi law is extremely strict and, in addition, there are many unwritten rules that visitors are expected to adhere to.
For example, it is against the law to criticize the Saudi royal family or Islam, or to publicly practice any religion other than Islam, and it is illegal for women to drive.
It is also illegal for anyone to possess items such as pork, drugs or alcohol. Be aware that the penalty if you are found to be under the influence, or in possession of alcohol, is a public lashing, regardless of your nationality or where the alcohol was consumed.
Murder, adultery, homosexuality, and apostasy (renouncing the Muslim faith) all carry the death penalty.
It is important to respect the laws of the land. Once inside the country, you are subject to the same laws and regulations as the wider population. Should you find yourself in legal trouble, it may be very difficult for your home country’s government to intervene on your behalf.
The city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is the birthplace of Islam, which plays a pervasive role in all aspects of Saudi society. No other religions may be openly practiced or promoted in Saudi Arabia, and working practices must not infringe upon the obligations of a person's Islamic faith.
The working day, for example, must be scheduled around the requirement for Muslims to pray five times a day. Routine business activities and appointments may not be held during prayer times and it is not unusual for businesses to close for up to 30 minutes at a time to accommodate prayers.
Offices are closed on Friday, the Muslim Holy Day, and often on Thursday, too. The working week begins on Saturday.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. It's important to be sensitive to the demands placed on your team during this time.
Don't eat or drink in front of people who are fasting. But, if you are fortunate enough to be invited to join the feast that typically takes place after sundown, view this as a good way to get to know your colleagues better and build good working relationships.
The exact dates for Ramadan vary from one year to the next because the Islamic calendar follows the cycles of the moon. For example, in 2018, Ramadan begins on May 15 but, in 2019, it starts on May 5. Dates also vary from country to country, depending on whether the moon has been sighted.
All foreigners are required to have a Saudi sponsor before they enter the country (whether they are visiting for business or for pleasure). A sponsor may be an individual, a company or an organization. If you are relocating to Saudi Arabia to work, your sponsor will most likely be your employer.
Your sponsor acts as a guardian and a guarantor for the duration of your stay. They are responsible for all administrative duties, such as obtaining work and residence visas, and rental contracts. You will even need your sponsor to open a bank account on your behalf.
It is important to make sure that you are happy with your sponsor's terms before you arrive. If a dispute arises while you are there, your national embassy will not be able to intervene. Your only option will be to settle the matter in court but this can take many years, during which time you will not be allowed to leave the country.
Under Saudi employment law, employees may not work for more than eight hours a day, or 48 hours each week. During Ramadan, this is reduced to six hours a day. However, these working hour restrictions do not apply to people in positions of authority, such as managers or policy makers.
Workers are entitled to at least 21 days of paid leave, increasing to 30 days after five years of employment. In addition, any worker who has not performed Hajj (a sacred Muslim journey to Mecca) is entitled to another 10 to 15 days off in order to make the journey.
Women in Saudi Arabia
While women are permitted to hold jobs, they have a defined legal status, which means that they have fewer rights than men.
Most workplaces have separate areas for women and men to keep mixing to a minimum.
Women may only work in certain industries, and they must have permission from their male "guardian" in order to do so. It is forbidden, for example, for women to work in any industry deemed hazardous or unsuitable for their gender. There are also restrictions on the hours and times of day that women may work.
Pregnant women are entitled to four weeks of maternity leave preceding their delivery date, and six weeks following the birth of their child. During this time, they receive 50 per cent of their salary if they have been working for the same employer for one year or more, and 100 per cent of their salary if they have been with them for more than three years.
For more information on Saudi employment laws, see the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Labor website.
For the most part, Westerners can expect to be treated with respect during their stay in Saudi Arabia.
However, the majority of the labor force in Saudi Arabia comprises migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Kenya, and India. These nationalities frequently report a range of issues, both at work and in public.
Ensure that your conduct towards everyone you encounter will stand scrutiny when you leave Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia celebrates two important festivals each year, and one public holiday. Little, if any, business is conducted during these times.
- Eid al-Fitr – This important celebration marks the end of Ramadan. The exact date changes each year (June 14-17 in 2018 and June 6-8 in 2019). During Eid al-Fitr, the public sector observes a 10-day holiday, while the private sector observes a three- to seven-day holiday.
- Saudi National Day – September 23. While this is a nationally observed holiday, many businesses still remain open.
- Eid al-Adha – This holiday marks the end of Hajj. The date varies by around 11 days each year. For example, Eid al-Adha starts on August 20 in 2018 and August 12 in 2019. The holiday officially lasts 10 days, but the private sector might only celebrate for three to seven days.
Festival dates vary because Saudi Arabia observes a lunar calendar. It pays to remember this when making appointments and setting deadlines.
Getting the Best From Your Team
As a manager, it's very important that you demonstrate cultural intelligence by making an effort to understand the basics of the Islamic religion.
According to Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, Saudi Arabia has a very strong hierarchical structure, so it is important to show respect for the power of business leaders, and to refrain from acting upon your own initiative, unless you are also a leader.
Managers are expected to be decisive and assertive. Traditions play a significant role, and people must adhere to rigid codes of conduct. Society resists change, and unorthodox behavior and ideas are not tolerated. Loyalty is highly valued.
Relationships are important to Saudis, so try to devote as much time as possible to getting to know the members of your team. Don't rush meetings. Give everyone a chance to socialize, and make sure that you join in too.
When making decisions, Saudis often place greater significance on faith and feelings than they do on facts alone. Saudi values are heavily influenced by divine law, which often makes its way into business and decision-making.
People don't like to rush into decisions, either. Attempts to pressure team members or rush processes are likely to be counter-productive, so give your team members plenty of time to talk with one another and sort through their thoughts.
Personal dignity is very important, too (much like the concept of "saving face" in Asian cultures). Always treat each person with the utmost respect, and save criticism and feedback for private conversations. This works both ways, so don't expect your team to be outspoken about negative results – especially if they feel that this will threaten your dignity.
Saudis often display a sense of fatalism, or a belief that their fate is beyond their control. This external Locus of Control can be challenging, since it means that many team members will be reluctant to take risks or disturb the status quo. To make the case for change, make sure that you have as much evidence as possible to show that it will be worth the effort. Provide plenty of research and source material, and try to appeal to people's emotions as well.
While living in Saudi Arabia, many Westerners choose to live in Western compounds, where many restrictions do not apply.
In public, there is a conservative dress code that is strictly enforced by the Muttawa – a religious police force. Wearing inappropriate clothes can have severe consequences, such as physical punishment or arrest, so make sure that you understand the customs before you arrive.
Men should wear smart Western clothes that cover as much of the body as possible. Do not adopt the dress of native Saudis, as this will cause immediate offense. Always wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, typically with a jacket and tie, even if temperatures are very high. Men are forbidden from wearing necklaces.
Women must wear modest attire. A traditional robe called an abaya is essential when out in public, and women may not pass through immigration without one. Dresses must be baggy and not cling to the body, with long sleeves and a high neckline. Hemlines should extend below the ankle.
Never wear any clothing, especially skirts or pantsuits, that show the outline of your body or that are revealing in any way.
It is not compulsory for non-Muslim women to wear a head scarf, although your hosts may appreciate it if you do. Certainly, when traveling between locations, you may find that you attract less attention if you do wear a head scarf.
- Shops and restaurants are often segregated into singles (males only) and family sections. Single men and women cannot mix, so many malls and shops only allow single men inside at certain times or on particular days.
- Physical contact during conversation is common here, but only between members of the same gender. Saudi men often walk hand in hand, which is a sign of friendship. Never touch a member of the opposite sex in public, even to shake hands.
- The left hand is considered "unclean" in this culture. Use your right hand for everything.
- Punctuality is not strict in Saudi Arabia. Appointments and meetings are generally scheduled between prayer times. If you have an appointment with a Saudi national, be on time but expect to wait.
- When you speak with a Saudi colleague, it is polite to enquire after the health of their family, rather than talking business straight away. However, you should never ask specifically about a person's wife or daughter. Instead, direct your questions toward the family in general, or just at their sons.
To work successfully in Saudi Arabia, make sure that you fully understand Islamic law before entering the country. These traditional laws are strict, and can be dramatically different from those of Western cultures.
Always conduct yourself in a considerate and modest way.
Respect your team members' religious beliefs, opinions, values, and decisions. Give people plenty of time to discuss issues and projects, and when making a case for change, provide facts and also appeal to emotions.