One of the most difficult concepts for many other cultures to grasp is the need to offer flattery in many business situations. Arabic is a language of hyperbole, where the merits of others are praised and overtly commented upon.
Therefore, during the relationship-building process, it is important to offer compliments to your host, his organisation, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world in general. You, in return, will be complimented – do not seem distant, aloof or embarrassed if this happens – take the compliments in the spirit they are given.
You may be asked questions which seem overly familiar at a very early stage. Questions about marital status, children, religious convictions and personal wealth are commonplace. If you feel uncomfortable answering such questions, have a ready supply of stock answers at your disposal. Refrain from saying that you are an atheist as this is incomprehensible in a society in which the absolute existence of a monotheistic deity is a given.
People are reluctant to convey bad news to you about any business issues. When this characteristic is combined with natural Arabic hyperbole, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective when being given very positive feedback about any particular proposition.
Do not be surprised if people seem somewhat aggressive in meeting situations. Speaking volubly and with a rising tone shows sincerity. This denotes engagement and interest and is in no way a negative sign. (The ability to converse in this manner is a much-admired characteristic in the region.)
Finally, be aware of the importance of good, strong eye contact. A man’s sincerity and honour can be judged by their ability to look you in the eye. This can be somewhat uncomfortable for those from cultures with much weaker eye contact (many Asian countries) but efforts must be made in this area.
Avoid any negative references to Islam, the situation in the Middle East or the role of the House of Saud.
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This World Business Culture profile is designed as an introduction to business culture in Saudi Arabia only and a more detailed understanding needs a more in-depth exploration which we can provide through our training and consultancy services.