You may find that your Saudi Arabian colleagues or business partners are not as organized as you would expect them to be from your perspective. In general, Saudi Arabs are multi-active. This means that they are often doing several things at once instead of one thing after another. They also don’t plan ahead step by step, but rather react flexibly and improvise, if necessary.
Family and religion
Another reason is that in Saudi culture work will never be the priority in someone’s life. The two top priorities are family and religion. Yes, people who are still single might work overtime, but Saudis with families will not. And since family is so important many employees will not attend work due to family issues quite more often than you may be used to. This has to do with the fact that Saudis usually have big families. Also, their understanding of family encompasses cousins and other relatives that Westerners would not consider direct family. Thus, there are very frequent family emergencies and other reasons for not working. One week a brother is in hospital, the next week a sister is having a baby. Even excuses like “Oh, I couldn’t come to work because my wife was having a headache and I was very worried“, are widely accepted.
Also, religion affects work, as most Saudi Arabs pray five times a day. They interrupt work or a meeting and go to pray when it’s prayer time. It only takes a couple of minutes and then life goes on. As a Westerner, you should definitely not say that they just as well can pray later. What is helpful is a prayer app, just download one for free so you know for sure when it is prayer time (varies with regard to sunset etc.).
Saudi Arabs very frequently use the expression “Insha-allah”, which means “God‘s will”: “See you tomorrow, Insha-allah“, “Can you prepare this for tomorrow?” “Yes, I will, Insha-allah“. They take it very seriously and get offended when foreigners laugh about it or think that they want to make an excuse. So never say anything like: “Ah, Insha-allah, does this mean that you will get it done or rather not“? However, even Saudis themselves will say that there are different levels of “Insha-allah”: If they say it to their parents, they really mean that they will try. If they say it to their friends it may sound more like “Let’s see if I have time …“. But again: Don’t make fun of it, just accept it!
Things happen slowly in Saudi Arabia. The level of productivity in an 8-hour day probably equals to 3 or 4 hours. The bottom line is: Don’t give a task to someone and expect it to get done. Instead, you should be prepared to always follow up on things and to constantly ask in a very nice way about the to-dos. But be careful, Saudis certainly won’t accept to be pushed! Don’t make anything sound like a threat.
Moreover, it is always best to intertwine work with personal relationships. If you want something to be done you’ll have to sit with the person, have a coffee together, and talk. Many Saudis don’t like to work by themselves and also won’t admit if they are having a problem with a task. But the minute you say “Hey, can we do this together“, it will get done.
Meet your Saudi colleagues on a personal level. If you have a good relationship with them or if you have even developed a friendship, they will get things done because they want to help you personally.
Work during Ramadan
During the whole month of Ramadan, employees in Saudi Arabia have a shortened workday until 2 pm. Everyone, who is not a Moslem, has to work the full day though.
As they are fasting during the daytime, Saudis will stay awake very long at night to have a meal with their family and also might get up before sunrise to eat again. Therefore, many will come into the office being too tired to work. Everything slows down.
As a foreigner, you are expected to respect the rules. All restaurants will be closed during the daytime and you can’t bring your own food and eat it at your desk either. You aren’t even allowed to carry a water bottle with you. However, in many offices, there is a designated area for foreigners or people who are not fasting, e.g. some kind of Ramadan kitchen where you can eat or drink some tea behind closed doors.
Business meals play an important part in Saudi business life and offer a great opportunity to build up relationships. If a business partner issues an invitation you should definitely accept, but not right away. Politeness decrees that at first you cautiously and gratefully refuse, perhaps saying that you don’t want to cause inconvenience.
If your business partner invites you again, say thank you for the generous invitation once more and repeat that you don’t want your host to go to any trouble. Only if he issues the invitation a third time – according to the “three-times rule” – should you accept and express copious gratitude for it!
Saudis go to great lengths to show their hospitality. You will be invited to first-class restaurants where a certain formality is to be expected. Let your host decide on the seating arrangements, which will be according to the hierarchical rank of the participants.
Be prepared for very large meals, often buffet-style, that start rather late (often at around 10 pm) and take many hours. Show your appreciation for the food on offer and try everything, even if it is very unusual for you.
Be aware that Saudis don’t talk about work at business dinners but about personal interests to build up the relationship further: sports, cars, travel or films are good topics to start with. Also, general questions about the family are welcome. Politics should be avoided completely as well as any topic that is controversial to Islam.