It is quite likely that meetings in Saudi Arabia will not match your expectations. First of all, your Saudi Arab business partners have a casual concept of time. If they don’t show up on time in the conference room, it’s not a sign of disinterest or disrespect. Even short-term cancellations are normal. Time is elastic in the Arabic world and not very important at all. It is best to confirm the time of a meeting shortly beforehand by phone, but still count on your business partners’ late arrival. Don’t show any impatience or anger, you would only lose face.
Late or not, there is always plenty of time to chat. Trying to get down to business too quickly can backfire. The personal relationship must always be established first before one is ready to do business with each other. As a rule of thumb: never skip the small talk.
Also, do not expect an agenda that is followed closely. Topics are discussed organically. Come with enough time and patience for lengthy digressions. Intense verbal communication plays a vital role in any meeting. Saudis will talk on top of each other. They show their engagement and interest in a conversation by frequently interrupting each other to carry on the dialogue.
The goal is, however, to come to an agreement on common action harmoniously. Naturally, that sets the underlying tone for meetings. Caution is always a good strategy as well as taking the characteristics of the Saudi Arab communication style to heart.
Finally, meetings with Saudi Arab business partners are often interrupted by phone calls or unexpected visits. These things often drag out intolerably long for foreign business partners. However, that should not be mistaken for impoliteness or lack of professionalism. According to their belief that relationships are paramount, Saudis offer all the time in the world to their conversation partners – or someone who rings. There is only one thing that helps: endless patience and flexibility as regard time.
Status and prestige play a significant role in Saudi Arabia. Against that background, your presentation materials should be of high quality and well designed. Use many visual elements such as films, pictures, and graphs. Do not skimp on the use of colour.
Try to present in a lively and entertaining way! Give only enough “dry” facts as are necessary to roll out your topic clearly. Show just a few but highly evocative slides. Include tables, statistics, or examples of calculations only sparingly. In Saudi Arabia, the spoken word is more highly regarded than the written word.
Always focus on specific benefits or advantages for your Saudi Arab business partners to be gained. Observe the hierarchical levels of those present if you address the participants directly.
It is a distinct advantage to be able to present at least some of your material not only in English but also in Arabic.
Negotiations and contracts
Good preparation for negotiations in Saudi Arabia is essential. Make sure you know who will be present, who has what powers of decision, and how in general the hierarchical levels function. In order to preserve mutual respect make sure the right people in the appropriate hierarchical positions are present. Therefore, it’s a good idea to mirror the hierarchical assembly at the negotiating table. If, for example, the Saudi Arab company owner is negotiating, the owner or the top manager should be represented on your side.
Do not mistake your Gulf Arab negotiating partners’ often flowery language for naivety or weakness. Saudi Arabs are really hard negotiators. You will need a lot of time as well as a good margin so that you can give many discounts because you will have to go little by little. During the negotiation process, there will always be a lot of uncertainty. Don’t push your Arab partners with too many details to clarify, but just go with the flow.
The bottom line is the personal relationship. Only wasta really works. If Saudi Arabs respect your company and are convinced of you as their future business partner, everything will fall into place. It is therefore advisable to have a really powerful relationship manager who is Saudi and who belongs to a well-esteemed family or tribe.
Contracts aren’t necessarily as detailed as they are in many Western countries. Saudis simply don’t think about that many possible scenarios, because from their point of view during the future cooperation the personal relationship counts much more than any written document.