Etiquette in Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a large and wealthy country situated in the Middle East. It shares borders with countries such as Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is regarded as the birthplace or 'cradle' of Islam, and Saudi Arabians passionately and stringently follow an interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. This faith largely influences many aspects of everyday life and forms the backbone of etiquette and protocol practised by Saudi Arabian society.
It is important that both men and women dress conservatively when travelling in Saudi Arabia. In a business situation, women should ensure that at the very least collarbones and knees are covered, and the clothes are not figure hugging. In non-business situations, women can opt for a long robe-like dress called an abaya, and should always carry a headscarf. If visiting a mosque, the head, hands and legs should be covered and shoes removed. Men should make sure that their arms and shoulders are covered up, and opt for long trousers in place of shorts.
Family and Society
Saudi Arabia is a society that considers family to be of the utmost importance, and where nepotism is looked upon favourably and frequently practised. This sort of respect extends directly to the King. You should never insult or criticise the King, as it would not only be extremely offensive, but there is a possibility that you could be harshly punished.
In Saudi Arabian society, it is considered proper etiquette for men and women to generally socialise in their same-sex groups, even in family situations. Women especially should be escorted when travelling, usually by a male family member.
Meeting and Greeting
When meeting and greeting in Saudi Arabia, it is usual for close male counterparts to shake hands and kiss on each cheek. However, if meeting under more formal circumstances, a handshake between members of the same sex is fine. Always use your right hand when engaging in a handshake, as the left hand is considered unclean. Each person present will be greeted individually, and it is expected that you do the same. You should expect to undertake a considerable amount of small talk, and learning a few Arabic greetings would be well received. Saudis will stand closer to each other than many westerners are used to, and members of the same sex will often touch arms when postulating or emphasising a point. You should not draw away from this as it would be considered rude and rejecting. Be aware that due to the conservative nature of Saudi Arabian society, it is not considered proper etiquette for men and women to greet each other in public.
Saudi names are indicative of their genealogy, and for this reason may seem relatively complicated and prolonged compared to their western equivalents. When greeting a Saudi, it is most common to greet them using any honorific title, along with their first (given) name, i.e. Dr. Abdul. You will often find that Saudis use the name Abd followed by the attribute to God in their name - 'al', for example Dr Adb al-Imran al-Hajj. In this instance referring to them as Dr Adb al-Imran would be appropriate. The name 'bin' may be used in the name - this translates as 'son of' and may be used more than once in a Saudi name. If you are ever unsure how to address someone, either follow someone else's lead, or simply ask your counterpart politely how they would like to be addressed! It is proper etiquette to refer to a royal as Your Highness, and any members of the government ministries as Your Excellency.
If invited for a meal by a Saudi, you should never eat with your left hand, as it is considered unsanitary. If you are eating in the family home, you may eat at floor-level, in which case sitting cross-legged or kneeling on one knee would be appropriate. You should make a point of trying everything offered to you on the table, and compliment the host.
Alcohol is prohibited under Islamic law, and for this reason many Saudis will not drink. Some hotels that frequently accommodate Westerners will serve alcoholic beverages. Whilst your Saudi hosts may not object to you having a drink, it would be perhaps more shrewd to either drink very moderately, or abstain altogether in their presence. Becoming intoxicated and behaving outlandishly will be considered completely inappropriate, rude, offensive, and may result in harsh punishment.
If you are planning on giving your Saudi acquaintance a gift, remember that men presenting women with gifts, especially flowers, is not always wholly appropriate. A gift for the whole family would be well received. If you are presented with a gift, it is polite to open it later.