Written by Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer
In Saudi Arabia, religious and cultural issues are regarded as unquestionable values, as Saudis are underpinned by their fervent belief in the tenets of Islam and strongly value their cultural customs. The line between spiritual, professional and private life is blurry in the Kingdom. This requires people to be careful and aware of what they may and may not do in the heartland of the Arab world, especially with regard to religious, cultural and social matters and issues related to the workplace.
As a rule of thumb, Saudis are thrilled when asked questions on religious issues by someone whose aim is to learn more about them. If a person tries to acquaint himself with why practices are done in certain ways, he will be made far more welcome. However, if he discusses these issues with a Saudi counterpart merely to criticize or compare them with other religions, or if concerns arise from malice rather than ignorance, he will not be welcome and will only be tolerated. For instance, if one probes about the issue of marrying more than one wife or drinking alcohol or women driving, this might be considered offensive, and as a result, one should avoid asking about matters of such nature.
In the business world in Saudi Arabia, confrontation in the workplace is not appreciated. As a result, Saudis tend to solve their work-related problems indirectly with the employee involved. When a colleague happens to be in disagreement with a co-worker over work-related issues, he will either avoid him or deal with him in a distant manner. Thus, privately working out work-related problems with close colleagues is the preferred and commonly practiced manner in the Saudi corporate world. Transparent procedures or Western-style checks and balances should not be expected. It is common for business meetings to have frequent interruptions; it is also common knowledge that during business meetings, loud and aggressive discourse denotes engagement and interest, not anger or hostility.
Several social practices should be avoided, as they offend Saudis. Behaviour in public is subject to inflexible rules, including not using the left hand for drinking and eating, not showing the soles of one’s shoes or feet, and rejecting refreshment whenever it is offered, and invitations as well. Other crucial issues one should be aware of in order to conduct oneself appropriately and not to cause offence within Saudi society are not showing a public display of affection, not mingling with the opposite sex, and not dressing immodestly.
Politically speaking, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a topic that one should not discuss with Saudi hosts due to its complication and delicate nature. This is simply because the Western or other nations’ perspectives may sound well thought out, but from a Saudi point of view, they are considered ill-informed or even offensive. Overall, politics is not a favourite subject among Saudis. As such, politics-related topics are very touchy and should be dealt with carefully, or better yet, avoided altogether.
Indeed, there are a number of issues one needs to consider when thinking of the dos and don’ts in countries around the world. First, try to avoid making judgements based on your own society. Second, remember that criticizing or complaining about the way people do things in their country is unlikely to be well-received. As a guest of the country, you should do your best to understand and respect it at all times. Third, you are the one who should attempt to adapt to the host society, not vice versa. Finally, if you think that you will have difficulty accepting the lifestyle of the place where you are about to go, then you probably should not go in the first place.
— This article was originally written by Saudi academic Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer for Saudi Gazette