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Modern Business, the Ancient Way

Updated 11 May 2010

Edward Musiak, an Australian expat living in Riyadh, shares his insights about doing business in Saudi Arabia.

The art of personal and business communication

In any culture, successful business dealings rely on clear communication between the relevant parties. In a complex culture such as Saudi Arabia, communicating effectively can be challenging for expats, but very rewarding when done successfully.

The first thing to note is there is no distinction between Saudi business and Saudi personal interactions.

Deals and business agreements are based on trust - not on the professionalism, the look and feel, nor the size of a proposal. In Saudi Arabia, the spoken word counts for everything and carries the most weight when delivered face to face. Yes, emails are used. Yes, phone calls are made, but in order to do business and make money in the Kingdom, it first requires long periods of discussion and regular verbal agreement.

Modern business, the ancient way

A senior Saudi executive pointed out recently that Westerners had literally thousands of years to develop a “modern” culture of business process and interaction.

Yet before oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia 70 years ago, the people were essentially traders. They understood extremely well the nature of buying and selling, and they were masters of the art of verbal communication. Written contracts were non-existent and a man’s word was his bond.

Thus, the “modern” way of doing business has been in place in Saudi Arabia for a little over half a century and hasn’t yet eclipsed the traditions of trade that formerly existed.

Business and belly dancing

To further illustrate the point, let us consider the idea of business entertainment as would be familiar to a Western or Asian expatriate living in Saudi Arabia. Entertainment in this context would usually be associated with a celebration, the closure of a deal or a mini-bribe.

In Saudi Arabia, however, entertainment between people wishing to do business together is an essential and crucial component of the business deal. It is during this time that trust is built. Most entertainment time is spent in an informal manner such as talking over coffee or tea in or outside the office environment. The occasional business dinner goes down well but only because it enables the parties to spend more time getting to know each other.

When yes means no, maybe

Another complexity that often baffles expatriates is that Saudis find it difficult to say “no”. They find all sorts of "nice" ways to avoid direct confrontational position.

Whereas many expatriates may be used to being told “no” and to knowing clearly whether they should stay or move on, it is not so clear cut in Saudi Arabia. In fact, there is rarely a straightforward answer given, and it often happens that verbal interpretation and body language can be as important in deciphering a decision as the spoken word itself. 

Meeting, interrupted

A final complexity that may prove frustrating to expatriates, is the fact that business meetings - formal or otherwise - are often interrupted by people or phone calls. Although some would consider this rude, it is customary in Saudi Arabia. The concept of courtesy is so strong that it is considered impolite not to acknowledge the person interrupting the meeting or calling your host on his mobile.

The benefit of this being that it enables you to have more access to and talk with the person with whom you wish to conduct your business.
Saudi Arabia is complex in the sense that it is very different and at first difficult to understand, but once you engage and accept the rules, personal interaction and business interaction can be clearly defined and easy to follow.

The power of patience

The successful expatriates in Saudi take time to get to know the people they want to work with and they learn to read between the lines. It is important to be patient, to talk to everyone and to ask lots of questions.

Even if you believe you have done everything right you may still fail; you cannot force the issue. Meetings will happen when they happen; decisions will be made when it is time for them to be made; agreements, both verbal and written, will be broken, changed, amended, and broken again.

Among all else, it is imperative that if you have something to say that you are prepared to back it up with proof. Saudis are not gullible and are cautious by nature. They do not like to be the early adopters.

I’ve learned that it’s important to be patient, look lost, say thank you to everyone, seek help, ask for advice, look helpless, say thank you to everyone. Knowing some basic Arabic goes a very long way.

Almost without exception, I have found Saudi people to be warm, friendly, engaging, curious, hospitable, understanding and accepting of other cultures. Understanding them and adapting your communication style will greatly reward your business and personal encounters.

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