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Doing business in Saudi Arabia

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.

Image: 123rf.com/Fabio Formaggio

This kind of personal relationships 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.

Let’s assume you need a certain document. While there may be rules how to get it, the procedure is actually very inconsistent. You might have filled in some forms, but then one will ask you for other forms. This back and forth can take weeks or months without significant results. 

How to 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 within 30 minutes. So while in almost every country 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 favoring 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. 

How to build up a network

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 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 for 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.

Learn more about the Arab business culture to build up your business success in Saudi Arabia!

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