Customs & Traditions in Saudi Arabia
Men should not stare at women or offer compliments
Maintain eye contact with people of the same sex.
Men should show courtesy and respect for women.
Members of the opposite sex do not embrace or kiss in public.
Do not discuss religion or criticize Islam or Saudi cultural practices.
It’s illegal to take photos of women, in addition to military and government facilities.
Punctuality depends on the priority of the occasion. People are tolerant of lateness when meeting with friends. However, punctuality is expected and adhered to in professional meetings.
It is considered rude to check the time whilst in conversation with someone or at a social gathering. Time spent with friends is considered time well spent.
Show interest in the well-being of a Saudi’s family whenever you see them (e.g. “How are your children?”).
Do not ask about a man’s wife or personal matters unless they open up to you first.
Criticism must be indirect. If you need to correct someone, take an indirect approach to the comment and include praise of any of their good points.
Avoid sitting in any position that allows one’s shoe to face another person. This is considered insulting.
Pay respect to the elderly in all situations.
It is polite to avoid blowing one’s nose or spitting in public.
Avoid mentioning issues relating to women’s rights, or drawing assumptions about a Saudi woman’s freedom or happiness based on her hijab, abaya, or niqab. Wearing a hijab is a woman’s personal decision and does not necessarily indicate that she holds conservative ideologies or is oppressed.
It is polite to avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in front of a Muslim during the daylight hours of the fasting month of Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia, it is considered disrespectful to engage in these activities in public.
Acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s modern advancements and achievements where appropriate. The country is currently in a state of cultural and social transition, and most Saudis are likely to appreciate it when foreigners recognize them as progressive people.
The family and tribe are the basis of the social structure.
Saudis take their responsibilities to their family quite seriously.
Families tend to be large and the extended family is very close.
The individual receives a social network and assistance in times of need from the family.
Nepotism is considered a good thing since it indicates that employing people one knows and trusts is of primary importance.
Family provides financial and emotional support.
Men hold the authority and are responsible for the primary income, security, and safety of the family. They are expected to work outside the home, earn money, and provide for their family.
Marriages are often arranged in Saudi Arabia, either by relatives or a matchmaker. However, nowadays it is becoming more common for young people in cities to indicate someone they are interested into their parents, who will then ‘arrange’ the marriage.
Saudis names say a lot about their ancestry and where they are from.
The first name is the personal name followed by "ibn" which means "son of" followed by the name of the father, then the name of the father followed again by "ibn" the name of the grandfather, then followed by the family name.
For the female her first name followed by bint (daughter of) father’s name, then ibn to indicate the grandfather’s name followed by the family name.
Saudi women do not adopt their husband’s names when they marry.
In some traditional families, first-born male children may be given the same name as their grandfather (which is also their third personal name): e.g. Ahmed Abdulrahman Ahmed Al-Otaibi.
Be aware that many Saudi men may not feel comfortable telling unrelated friends the names of their female family members.
Meeting & Greeting
Friends may greet each other with a long handshake and a then kiss on each cheek, sometimes three.
Assalaam ‘Alaikum” (May peace be upon you), is the greeting phrase used in Saudi Arabia & the reply on it is “Wa ‘Alaikum as-salaam” (And peace be upon you).
While greeting Saudis take their time and discuss general things.
Saudi men who are very close friends may greet one another by touching noses. This indicates trust, intimacy, and respect in the friendship. It is not performed unless people are deeply loyal to one another.
Women generally hug and kiss close friends, while in business meetings they will generally shake hands or place hands on hearts.
Men and women would not greet each other by shaking hands. As Muslims generally do not make physical contact with members of the opposite gender. Therefore, when greeting a Saudi of the opposite gender, it is best to greet them verbally with a nod of the head.
Handshakes are most common in business settings and always use the right hand.
A high degree of respect is paid to elders in Saudi Arabian society. They may be greeted with a kiss on the forehead.
People expect to be introduced to others by their titles (e.g. Mr/Mrs, Uncle/Aunt, Doctor, Professor).
It is polite to address colleagues or superiors with the title ‘Abu’ which means ‘the father of…’ followed by the name of the father’s eldest son (e.g. Abu Ahmed, Abu Aboud). This indicates familiarity and respect.
Visiting a home
When visiting someone at home you would usually remove your shoes at the entrance and be given slippers.
You should dress conservatively and smartly.
It is okay if you arrive 30 mins after the time specified – being on time is not the norm.
Show respect for the elders by greeting them first and stand up when they enter a room.
Accept the offer of Arabic coffee and dates.
Coffee is followed by a sweet of some kind, usually a mint and/or ginger tea.
If you are invited for a meal, understand that there will be a great deal of socializing and small talk before the meal is served, and you will be expected to stay afterward for more conversation and fruit.
It is inappropriate to invite someone of the opposite gender for a private visit to one’s home without an accompaniment.
If a Saudi Arabian wishes to invite an entire family to visit their home, the male head of the family will generally call the eldest male of this family to invite them.
Men & women are generally separated during visits, many households have two different ‘majlis’ (living room/place of sitting/private place for discussion) so men and women can socialize separately.
Men give women notice before entering an area of the house where unrelated women are socializing to give them time to cover up.
Hosts will continue to refill the guest’s cups until the guest indicates they’ve had enough by covering the mouth of the cup with their hand or gently shaking the cup from side to side and saying “Bas” (Enough).
It is improper for people to drink out of the same cup.
Gifts are common in Saudi Arabia, especially in business and social life.
If you are invited to a Saudi's house always bring something small as a thank you. Dates, cakes, and sweets are always well received.
Flowers are a nice gift for the hostess.
Teachers are often the recipients of many gifts from pupils.
It is considered especially inappropriate for men to give individual women gifts, especially those with romantic connotations (e.g. flowers).
Perfume, watches, and ‘Oud’ (a form of incense or oil used by Saudis daily) are common and good personal gifts for men. Men should not buy perfume or Oud for a woman unless they are a very close relative. Women may buy Oud for each other.
Avoid giving expensive gifts. This can embarrass the recipient, especially if it is given in front of others.
Gifts are not opened in front of the giver.
Give and pass gifts using the right hand unless the object is too heavy and both hands are required.
Do not give alcohol, pork, knives, pigskin, perfumes with alcohol, or anything that contains a sexualized image of women.
Avoid buying gold or silk clothing items for male Saudis. Wearing these materials goes against Islamic rules. Silver is the most appropriate material to buy for men.
In business corporate gifts such as pens, prayer beads and USB sticks are standard practice.
Dining & Food:
Food can be served on a large plate set on the floor or a table.
If the meal is on the floor, sit cross-legged or kneel on one knee. Keep your feet away from the cloth or plastic sheet.
When seated at a table, the most important seating position is in the middle of the table. Guests usually sit next to the head of the family.
Do not take your seat until the eldest person has sat down.
People only start eating once the host said that it is time to begin. This is generally indicated when everyone says “Sahtain” (Good health) or “Bism allah” (in the name of God).
Eat only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean. Ask for a fork if you want one.
Try to taste all dishes on offer. Not eating very much can be seen as rude or a sign that the food tastes bad. There is often more food than you can eat.
There is little conversation during meals so that diners may enjoy the food.
Wash hands before and after meals.
Pork is prohibited in Islam. Do not serve food containing pork or pork products as gelatine to your Saudi counterpart.
Saudis often prepare more food than what their guests will be able to eat. Hosts often encourage guests to have second helpings and eat more even if they are full.
When the meal is finished, guests can say “Daiman Aamer”, meaning ‘may there always be plenty of food on your table/house’.
The main meal may be followed by tea or coffee and some sweets.
Thank the host directly before getting up from the table.
Saudi communication style is set by honor and follows Sunnah, the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
Saudis love to compliment guests; this should be taken in the positive and friendly spirit intended and if possible, returned in kind.
It is common to be asked very personal questions about your family or lifestyle; this is not being nosey.
When conversing with one another, Saudis generally try to maintain group harmony by avoiding individual attention.
People’s communication patterns can differ depending on the context. Generally, when speaking in a business setting or with someone more familiar with the person, it is common to speak more directly. However, people tend to be very indirect and respectful to their seniors, such as elders or professionals.
When the eldest person speaks, everybody is expected to listen and pay their full attention as a sign of respect.
Personal criticism or advice should always be approached sensitively and privately. Therefore, try to offer any suggestion of improvement with praise at the same time.
It is common for Saudis to range from subject to subject while conversing, taking a long time before getting to the point.
Speak loudly with a rising tone is seen as a positive characteristic rather than a negative one.
Saudi Arabians are often comfortable poking fun at themselves. However, some may be sensitive about being embarrassed and laughed at. It is inadvisable to tease another person and/or poke fun at things. It is very offensive to make a joke that involves a man’s female family members, the government, or sexuality. Be aware that blasphemy is punishable in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, all jokes about religion are strictly prohibited.
Swearing is very uncommon in Saudi culture and thought to indicate a lack of decorum. If someone does swear, it is usually said in the form of a curse.
People are usually comfortable hugging and touching friends of the same gender. It is common for two men to hold hands in public when they are sitting or walking somewhere as a gesture of friendship.
Saudi standards of personal space differ depending on the context. If the person is a friend of the same gender, the distance is often small. However, it may be bigger in instances when there is a difference of authority or when the other person is from the opposite gender. It is best to keep at least a meter distance between you and a Saudi person to respect the modesty of the other person if you do not know them well.
When talking to people of the same age, gender, or status, direct eye contact is expected. Strong eye contact indicates sincerity and trust, especially in business. However, males and females are expected to lower their gaze and avoid sustained eye contact with each other. Some men may look at the ground to avoid observing a female altogether. This is considered respectful and observant of the partition between genders. Younger people may also lower their gaze when speaking to elders out of respect.
It is impolite to beckon with a single index finger or the left hand. Instead, place the right palm downwards and use a clawing motion with fingers to indicate a “come here” request.
It is considered very rude to point with the index finger. Instead, Saudis raise their chin and look in the general direction of the object they wish to “point out”.
People may indicate “no” by shaking their head or disagreement/disapproval by quickly tilting their head back whilst clicking their tongue.
If a Saudi person needs someone to wait, they may touch their thumb, forefinger, and middle finger together and motion to the person they wish to ask to be patient. For example, this action may be performed by someone who is speaking on the phone to another person approaching them.
Placing the palm of the right hand on one’s chest shows respect or sincerity when saying something earnest (such as an apology).
To touch the other’s shoulder with one’s right hand can indicate agreement.
Hitting one’s right fist into the left hand and lightly rubbing it in the open palm indicates obscenity or contempt.
The symbol for ‘Okay’ (with the forefinger and the top of the thumb meet to form a circle, with the other fingers stretched out) has an offensive meaning, although the Western meaning is becoming more common.
Holding the hand up (as if to say ‘stop’) with the middle finger down is the equivalent of giving someone ‘the finger’ in Western culture.
There is a strong belief in the evil eye in Saudi Arabia whereby one’s misfortune is caused by another’s envy, sometimes taking the form of a curse. Complimenting or praising something too heavily can cause some Saudis to be wary that the evil eye will be jealous of it or curse it. People say “Mashallah” (May God bless) to ward off the evil eye after a compliment and avoid hurting people’s feelings. This phrase comforts people as it lets them know that you are giving an innocent compliment and do not wish harm. Expect to hear it highly frequently in conversation, and say it after every compliment.
Be sure to offer everything multiple times in return. If you only offer something once, a Saudi person may respond, “No, it’s okay”, out of modesty and politeness even though they meant to accept the second offer.
Be careful when you compliment an item in a Saudi person’s house, as they may feel compelled to offer it to you as a gift. If they try to give it to you, insist that you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it. A Saudi person is likely to offer the object out of politeness, and if you accept, they may end up giving you something they wished to keep.
Show gratitude and humility when offered a compliment. This is done by responding with an equally respectful compliment on the same subject. If they are Muslim, you may wish them Allah’s (God’s) blessings.
Friday is a holy day for Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, most businesses close on this day and Saturday in respect of that. This means the ‘weekend’ falls on Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
Saudi women traditionally wear an ‘abaya’ over their clothing that covers them from head to toe. This is commonly paired with a ‘niqab’ (a veil that covers the head and face, but not the eyes) or a ‘hijab’ or ‘Shayla (a headscarf that covers the hair, but not the face). Different colors and styles of abayas and scarves are now very popular.
Saudi men Traditionally wear a ‘thobe’ (long white robe made of light fabric), a head covering called a ‘ghoutrah’ with a black headband known as an ‘egaal’. However, Western clothing is also common – usually long trousers and sleeved shirts.
Female contact information is usually kept private (unless in a business context). Women generally do not post photos of themselves, and men do not show photos of their female relatives unless they are young children. Some men may also refuse to tell others what their wife, sister, or mother’s name is.
Tipping is common in Saudi Arabia, but it is not routine. It is also not required if a service charge is already included in the bill.
Saudis usually tip expatriate service people and individual services in hotels despite the overall service charge. For example, it is appropriate to leave $1-2USD for a porter or housekeeper.
Don’t point at anyone or show the soles of your shoes.
Don’t stare at women.
Don’t wear tight clothing that shows the shape of your body or legs. Most Saudis are accustomed to seeing Western clothing. However, it is advisable to ensure your legs, arms, and shoulders are covered.
Don’t say anything critical of the royal family, Islam, or a person’s family.
Don’t show affection to the opposite sex in public.
Don’t discuss sex in public. Do not openly discuss anything of a sexual nature, especially around members of the opposite gender. Also, all pornographic websites are banned in the country.