Business Customs and Travel in Saudi Arabia

A Hot Tip about Business Environment in Saudi Arabia

Posted on: 1 Jun 2010

Business Customs

While modern Saudi Arabia has adopted numerous business methods and styles of the West, many cultural differences remain. Most important is that business will generally only be conducted after a degree of trust and familiarity has been established. Considerable time may be spent exchanging courtesies, and several visits may be needed to establish a business relationship. Business visitors should arrange their itineraries to allow for long meetings, as traditional Saudis often maintain an “open office” in which they will sign papers, take telephone calls and converse with friends or colleagues who drop by. Tea and traditional Saudi coffee are usually offered. One to three cups of Saudi coffee should be taken for politeness, after which the cup may be wiggled between thumb and forefinger when returning it to the server to indicate that you have finished.


Many Saudi businessmen have been educated or have traveled extensively in the West and are sophisticated in dealing with Americans. For the most part, travelers can rely on Western manners and standards of politeness to see them through, with a few additional rules that may be observed. One should avoid sitting at any time with the sole of the foot pointed at the host or other guest. Unless one is on familiar terms with a Saudi, it may be discourteous to ask about a man’s wife or daughters; ask instead about his family. Shoes are often removed before entering a Saudi living room (majlis). If you are invited to the home of a Saudi for a party or reception, a meal is normally served at the end of the evening, and guests will not linger long after finishing. Be observant and adapt your behavior to the customs of your host.


Dress is conservative for both men and women. Men should not wear shorts or tank tops, while women are advised to wear loose-fitting and concealing clothing with long skirts, elbow-length sleeves and modest necklines.


There is strict gender separation in the Kingdom and restaurants maintain separate sections for single men and families. Wives are often excluded from social gatherings or are entertained separately.


Travel Advisory

The American Embassy continues to receive reports that suggest terrorist action against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia remains a possibility. Because of continuing security concerns, the U.S. Embassy, Consulates General, and U.S. military elements throughout the country routinely review their security postures and make improvements wherever possible to lessen their vulnerabilities. The Embassy strongly encourages all American residents in Saudi Arabia to likewise take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness and lessen their vulnerability.


In addition, the State Department issues Consular Information Sheets for every country of the world with information on such matters as the health conditions, crime, unusual currency or entry requirements, any areas of instability and the location of the nearest American embassy or Consulate in the subject country.


American citizens who choose to visit Saudi Arabia are strongly urged to avoid staying in hotels or housing compounds that do not apply stringent security measures and are also advised to maintain good situational awareness when visiting commercial establishments frequented by Westerners. American citizens also are advised to keep a low profile; vary times and routes of travel; exercise caution while driving, entering or exiting vehicles; and ensure that travel documents and visas are current and valid.


Americans traveling to Saudi Arabia for a short period of time are encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy or Consulates and to obtain the most current security information. This process can be done before departing the United States through the Internet Based Registration System (IBRS).


Americans who expect to spend more time visiting Saudi Arabia or who are resident in Saudi Arabia are encouraged to register through the IBRS and to subscribe to the American Embassy warden system to receive the latest Warden Messages and Travel Warnings. The Warden system will inform the resident American community of current security matters.


Visa Requirements

Saudi visas valid for at least six months are required for entry. Visas can be obtained for business and work, to visit relatives, for religious visits, and for tourism. Most visas are single entry and allow for a maximum six-month stay; however the Saudi Government has recently started granting a limited number of multiple-entry business visas for two to five years. Because of a reciprocal arrangement recently concluded with the United States, the issuance of five year visas will likely become the norm over time. Visas are not available upon arrival at ports of entry yet, but the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs is reviewing the process of granting business visas at ports of entry for OECD nationals.


In order to obtain a visitor’s visa for business purposes, a U.S. company representative is required to submit a letter of invitation from a sponsoring entity in Saudi Arabia. The invitation letter must be in Arabic, the American applicant may present a copy of the original letter, the letter must be on the sponsoring organization’s letterhead and must bear an authenticating stamp of the local Saudi Chamber of Commerce. The letter should name the visa applicant, passport number, company name and address, approximate dates of visit, and reason for visit (e.g., business meetings).


It is recommended that the American applicant’s company use the company’s letterhead when requesting the Saudi embassy’s/consulates’ cooperation in issuing the visa. The visa applicant must apply for and receive the visa prior to departing the United States at either the Saudi Embassy in Washington or at Saudi Consulates in Houston, Los Angeles or New York City. Once the visa is placed in the passport, it is usually valid for one month and must be used or officially canceled before a subsequent visa will be issued. The visa may be extended at the discretion of the Saudi Embassy or Consulate prior to the expiration date.


If the American applicant does not have a Saudi sponsor, U.S. Commercial Service offices in Saudi Arabia can advise on how to make initial contacts with potential sponsors. Please note that the U.S. Embassy and Consulates General cannot sponsor private American citizens for Saudi visas. Occasionally the Saudi consular officer may require the applicant to obtain the visa through a more time-consuming process involving approval by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Women traveling alone, Americans of Arab origin and private consultants are often required to use this process. Resident visas also are available through a separate process.


It is also worth mentioning that travelers with an Israeli visa in their passport could be denied a Saudi visa. If a traveler already has an Israeli visa in their passport, it is highly recommended that the traveler obtain a new passport prior to requesting a Saudi visa. Further, if a traveler arrives at the Saudi Arabian immigration desk with an Israeli visa or entry-exit stamp, it is very possible that Saudi immigration could deny the traveler entry to Saudi Arabia. A medical report, including an AIDS test, is required to obtain a work and residence permit. This includes a medical certification. For further information on entry requirements, travelers may contact the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, or one of the Consulates in New York, Houston, or Los Angeles.


There is an airport departure fee of SAR 50 (US$13.30) per traveler. Members of airline crews, infants (under the age of two), and passengers in transit less than 24 hours are exempt from paying this fee. The fee is payable to the travel agent through which the ticket is booked.




Country code: 966. A sophisticated telecommunications network and satellite, microwave and cable systems span the country.


Mobile Telephone

International roaming agreements exist with some mobile phone companies. Coverage is mostly good.



The Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Telephones provides internet facilities in most cities. E-mail can also be accessed from many hotels and internet cafes.



Saudi Arabia has very tightly controlled media environment and criticism of the Government, the royal family and religious tenets are not really tolerated-although there are signs of an increasing tolerance emerging. The state-run Broadcasting Service of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) is responsible for all broadcasting in the kingdom. The Minister of Culture and Information overseas radio and TV operations. Viewers in the country’s east can pick up TV stations from more liberal Gulf neighbors. The government blocks access to websites that deems offensive. Newspapers tend to follow the lead of the state-run news agency on whether or not to publish stories on sensitive subjects.



• Saudi newspapers are created by royal decree.

• Pan-Arab papers, subject to censorship, are available.

• The main newspapers include Al-Jazirah, Ar-Riyadh, and Okaz. English-language dallies include Arab News and Saudi Gazette.



The business centers of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam/Al-Khobar/Dhahran have international airports served by a variety of international airlines. Air travel is preferred for domestic travel with public service restricted to three airlines — the national carrier, Saudi Arabian Airlines, and two new private, low-cost airlines, Sama and NAS Air.



The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely used in business and some signs and notices. Most road signs are in Arabic, while major highways and streets in major cities display road signs in both Arabic and English.



The quality of health care is variable, ranging from excellent to poor depending on the region, hospital, and specialty. Most Western expatriates find it adequate for routine care and minor surgery. In recent years, however, medical care has evolved in Saudi Arabia with sophisticated types of treatment, such as open-heart surgery, kidney transplants and cancer treatment, being undertaken. Only a few drugs available in the United States are not available in Saudi Arabia. Many local hospitals and healthcare companies are vying to join with American healthcare providers. In 2005, for example, the Cleveland Clinic set up a joint venture medical center in Jeddah, the International Medical Center, which will work on several joint initiatives including e-health, teleconferencing, consultations and continuing education programs.


A yellow fever certificate is required from travelers coming from infected countries. A meningitis vaccine is recommended for incoming to Jeddah and the western region, especially during the annual pilgrimage ritual.


There is a risk of malaria throughout the year in most of the Southern Region and in certain rural areas of the Western Region, except for Mecca and Medina.



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Posted: 01 June 2010

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