Establishing new business contacts in Saudi Arabia means that one wants to be accepted in a community. Saudi Arabs put great emphasis on a personal connection. They want to feel that they can trust you. And because of this, they have to know you well.
Vitamin W – Wasta
This kind of personal relationship is called wasta. It translates roughly to “connections“ or “influence“ and is sometimes referred to as “vitamin W”. The wasta tradition has its origin in tribal family structures. Therefore, Saudis have strong social as well as business networks, and they will do anything in their power to serve family and friends.
For Saudis, wasta is also more important than rules. If they like you they will break the rule for you. Let’s assume you need a certain document. While there may be rules on how to get it, the procedure is actually very inconsistent. You might have filled in some forms, but then they will ask you for other forms. This back and forth can take weeks or months without significant results.
That’s when you should use wasta: Pick up the phone and talk to somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody in that particular office. Suddenly, everything will be done in 30 minutes. So while in almost every country or society it is to a certain extent important to have a strong network, in Saudi Arabia the right connections can be crucial to get anything done at all.
Of course, there is also a more negative side to wasta, especially when it comes to things such as favouring unqualified applicants for a job or giving out scholarships to underperforming students. But in business, it is definitely crucial to build up a network of people who will help you or arrange things for you. But how do you do that?
First of all, you have to spend a lot of time with people to get to know them. Therefore, business situations in Saudi Arabia will not proceed in the more formal or structured way that you may expect. When it comes to a meeting, for example, be prepared that your Saudi colleagues will stroll in with a cup of coffee in their hand, and they will want to chat about family, travel, sports, hobbies, the weather etc., not about the business yet. They want to meet on a personal level.
Let yourself into that, get involved and bear in mind that building up relationships means that there is a lot of overlap of private and business life. Try to be open to this and feel free to also ask lots of questions in return. Just don’t ask too specifically about your business partner’s wife, this could be misunderstood.
Besides this extensive form of small talk, the best way to draw bridges to people in Saudi Arabia is actually by sharing food. You will discover that Saudi Arabs are very generous and hospitable people. They will constantly offer you food. Even if you are not hungry or you don’t have the time, take a piece of the offered food and say that you will eat it later. Show your appreciation. Always try to participate: accept invitations for business meals, take a coffee break together, eat lunch together, bring food yourself to share.
Last but not least: Try to speak a few words in Arabic. Your business partner will immediately connect easier with you.
Slowly and steadily build up your personal network in Saudi Arabia.
The importance of personal relationships is evident in any business communication with Saudi Arabs. First of all, they usually stand very close to one another and tend to touch their counterparts or try to pull them closer as a sign of mutual trust. Even if you feel uncomfortable in such a situation, it would be rather rude to withdraw in order to regain the personal space you are used to. Secondly, hierarchy and social status determine who is talking to whom. Always address the highest-ranking Saudi Arab first.
Of even more importance is, however, that Saudi Arabs communicate very diplomatic and indirect. One is always careful not to offend through harsh words or negative statements. The golden rule is to allow everyone to save face by expressing oneself as skillfully and as positively as possible.
When someone has to turn down a request, for example, giving a direct negative answer would be offensive from the Saudi point of view. A “no” places the relationship in danger. Therefore, Saudi Arabs might answer with “No problem”, even when the request made cannot be fulfilled. As a consequence, an Arabic “yes” is not always to be understood as a “yes” in the Western sense, but often rather expresses only the general readiness to try it.
Often, metaphors and circumlocutions are used so as not to have to give a direct “no”. Gestures and facial expressions, such as the lifting of the eyebrows or a look of boredom, can be a clue to the real answer. If your Saudi Arab conversation partner does not deal with your matter concretely, but rather changes the topic or speaks more generally, that is to be interpreted as a negative signal. Statements such as “I’ll think about it,” or “Let’s see what happens,” generally mean no.
If you yourself have to give a negative answer try to wrap it in equally benevolent words. Saudi Arabs will be able to decipher it and get what you actually mean. They are well trained to do so since they use a rather flowery language in general. They are very articulate and master any communication level.
In the same indirect and positive way, you should handle any form of criticism. If you have to criticize someone’s work or proposal you should try to make sure that this person does not lose face. Start by recognizing many positive aspects before carefully naming points that could be improved. Spend time in the beginning on talking and building up the relationship, making everyone feeling comfortable. Think about this: it is more important to preserve harmony and the personal relationship than to attribute blame to somebody and to demand accountability.
Never give any critical feedback in a group. Saudi Arabs certainly don’t like to be pointed out in front of others. They will quickly feel that their dignity and honour have been insulted, they will feel ashamed. If you express criticism at all you should do it individually and privately. Even if you just intend to remind someone of doing something it might shame them.
Be very sensitive regarding shame in general. For example, a US-American manager once wrote to a Saudi business partner who couldn’t attend a meeting: “It’s such a shame that you couldn’t attend the meeting. Let me inform you about the things we talked about”. Of course what the manager meant was: “Too bad that you were not here, we missed you. But let me inform you about the things we talked about“. The Saudi, though, understood something like: “Shame on you that you weren’t there“. The Saudi perception was that the US-American manager criticized and denounced him.
Another example: An US-American working in a lab in Saudi Arabia always had his tools spread out on the table. His Arab colleagues would come, take the tools, use them and not bring them back. So in a meeting, he said: “I wish people would stop stealing my tools“. US-Americans use the word “steal” like „to take“, it doesn’t insinuate a crime. But in Saudi Arabia stealing is a very serious crime. So his colleagues were offended.
Saudis will communicate everything personally – face to face. They won’t respond to a letter or an email – or at least it will take weeks until they get back to you.
So if you need something, pick up the phone or even better go there. Sit down together and have a coffee, do some small talk and then ask about what you wanted to know. This takes time and can be frustrating if you are more used to sending out a quick email and getting a reply straightaway. But in Saudi Arabia, you can’t expect anything to be done without any personal contact. So, do send emails, but always call as well or go there and refer to your email in a personal conversation. Otherwise, things take even longer.
You’ll also find that it is hard to find any information on paper since information is usually shared verbally. This means that you have to walk around and collect individual bits of information in meetings or informal gatherings. Put the puzzle together bit by bit.