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Saudi Arabia: Etiquette, Customs, Facts and Vital Information

by Melissa Chang |

Middle East, Saudi Arabia


economic city

Location: Middle East, with Jordan on its Northwest, Iraq and Kuwait to the North, Red Sea to the West, Qatar, UAE, and Oman to the East, and Yemen to the South.

saudi mapCapital: Riyadh.

Climate: Dry desert climate with extreme temperatures.

Population: 28,686,633 as per July 2009 estimates. Of this, about 5,576,076 are expatriates. No Saudi citizen lives below the poverty line, but there is an unemployment rate of 8.8%. The Saudi economy is driven by crude oil production and the petroleum and natural gas industry. Other resources include cement, plastics, fertilizer, commercial aircraft and ship repairs.

Ethnic Make-up: Arab 90%, Afro-Asian 10%.

saudi ladyReligions: Islam 100%. All Saudi citizens are Muslims and they are governed by the Shari’a Law. Islam is the official religion, and there is not recognition of any other religion. There is a small minority of Christians and Jews who are non-nationals. The Saudi government does guarantee the right to practice other religions, but this is based on the generosity of the ruling class and not defined by law. Proselytising, public practice, and preaching of all faiths other than Islam is however, prohibited. Non-Muslims also come under the Shari’a law.

Language: Arabic

Government: Islamic Monarch 

camelTravel Issues: Saudi Arabia permits travelers to visit for religious, work, and business purposes and, to a much smaller extent, for tourism. Those visiting for religious purposes should have Pilgrim Passes and proof of Muslim faith in the form of an authenticated certificate. Passports should have a minimum validity of 6 months beyond period of stay. Other necessary documents include a valid visa, tickets or travel documents showing return or onward journey, and a Yellow Fever Vaccination certificate if arriving from an infected region within the last five days.

Health & Safety: Saudi society is governed by strict religious laws and visitors need to be cognizant of these. All people, including non-Muslims and expatriates, will be tried under the stringent Shari’a Law in a Muslim court. This makes it highly advisable to steer clear of all trouble while there. Saudi is a fairly safe destination for all who abide by the laws of the land. As for health, no vaccinations are mandatory, but Tetanus and Hepatitis A immunization may be considered. 



The People

shopping in saudiSaudi society is highly patriarchal, and women traditionally follow a subservient role in both home and society. About 80% of Saudi women have a University education, but only about 5% consider it necessary to enter the workforce. Female doctors and teachers tend only to women and not men. Social segregation goes to great lengths in public life. Women are expected to take care of children and run homes rather than be seen outside. Foreign women are allowed some leeway in this regard but are almost never taken seriously if they were to voice an opinion or make a demand. They are advised as far as possible to follow the norms for Saudi women.

The Religion

saudi boyAll Saudi citizens are Muslim. Saudi is the land of the Prophet Mohammad and hence may be considered the headquarters of the Muslim faith. The land upholds this status vigorously, and non-Muslims are denied entry into their holy cities: Jeddah, Mecca and Medina.

Role of Family

Families uphold traditional values that go back hundreds of years. The eldest male is the sole authority when it comes to decision making, and his word is law in the household. Women have no equal rights as men but have to be subservient to them in all matters. Men take care of business and all matters outside of home, while women run the household affairs and bring up children.


pepsi in saudi arabiaAncestors are accorded the greatest respect. Lineage is a matter of great pride and honor to be upheld at all costs.

Recreational Activities

Major cities such as Riyadh have enormous shopping malls and entertainment centers. The Obhir Creek in Jeddah has great water sports facilities such as snorkeling, sailing, waterskiing, and swimming. Other recreation options are desert safaris and sightseeing tours.

Anything else important for this culture

It is important to remember that the month of Ramadan is when all Muslims fast all day long. It would be frowned upon to eat or even drink water in their presence. Remember to respect their prayer schedules which occur many times during the day. Always show respect for elders and seniors and reflect this in your body language. Never make direct eye contact with the opposite gender.



Meetings & Greetings

Members of the opposite gender do not greet or even make eye contact with each other. Women are expected to keep their eyes lowered on meeting men who are not family. Men and women greet each other of the same gender effusively with embraces and alternate kisses on the cheeks depending on the level of closeness. Otherwise they may just shake hands with each other. Foreigners may limit their greeting to a handshake. When in a group, always greet the elders before others.

saudi kingCourtesy

When greeting an elder or superior, it is customary among Saudis to kiss their shoulders to show respect. An elder of the family may be kissed on the forehead. Saudis consider it rude to go straight to business without making time for pleasantries first. Elders are never interrupted or spoken to first; always wait for them to begin the conversation.

Gift Giving

Gifts are not given or expected between acquaintances but rather between old friends and between those who share a strong relationship.Therefore, do not offer anyone a gift unless you’ve established a strong bond with them first. Avoid presenting perfumes, alcohol, or flowers to your Saudi hosts or friends. Chocolates, pastries, well-packaged fruits and nuts would be better options. Gifts are not opened as soon as they are received.

Dress Code

Formal occasions demand a suit and tie for men. Business casual is also acceptable. Women need to keep their arms, shoulders, knees and preferably ankles covered in male presence. A head scarf will make a suitable impression. Avoid heavy accessorising. Jeans, tight t-shirts, and shorts are not acceptable whatever the weather.

Dining Etiquette

skyscraper in saudi arabiaWait to be seated as there is a hierarchy based on seniority and superiority. If seated on the floor, keep your legs crossed under you. Make sure you do not eat before your appointment for there will be a huge amount of food served at the meal. You are expected to try a bit of everything and refuse nothing. Eat with your right hand only and never with the left.

Visiting a home

If you are invited into a Saudi home, it is because you have their respect. Show appropriate appreciation of this fact when you accept the invitation. Bring along a token gift for the children or the home, and never for the lady of the house. So avoid flowers and perfumes if you’re male. Always take off footwear before entering a carpeted room. Dress appropriately to show respect for the host. Greet elders first. Present your gift discreetly or leave it behind unseen.

Communication Style

Social segregation ensures that men and women only mingle with those of their own gender outside family and even during family occasions. Men tend to indulge in long conversations regarding businesses and world matters. As an outsider, you’re not expected to give strong opinions or contradict the opinions of an elder. Saudis tend to gesticulate a lot when they communicate, but this is not an indication of any temper.

Dos and Don’ts

While visiting a Saudi home, do not praise or admire any object in the house, for it will be wrapped up and given to you. Your refusal to accept it would be considered rude. Do not crack vulgar jokes or put down women, for although highly patriarchal, Saudi men consider the honor of their womenfolk sacrosanct. Do not engage in merry making during the holy month of Ramadan.


Map by Image Editor
Boy by André Gustavo
Shop by Alan Light
City, skyscraper by uniquebuildings
Camel by Alan Light
Palace by desrunyan
Prayers by cmonville
King by m_bahareth
Saudi lady by retlaw snellac
Jewelry by Nouf Kinani
Pepsi by Francesco Crippa

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