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About Saudi Arabia

by: Amer Bitar


Basic Information

Currency: Saudi Riyal (SAR)
Capital: Riyadh
Time Zone: GMT+3
Population: 35.01 m (2020) [1]
Religion: Islam (official religion) [2]
Border countries: Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman, and Yemen. 


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formally created in 1932 by the late King Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud). The country occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, making it the largest in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. Its western province of Hijaz is home to the two key holy places for the religion, Mecca, where the Prophet Mohammad was born, and Medina, where he was buried. Millions of Muslims from around the world travel to Mecca every year to perform the annual Islamic pilgrimage, the Haj, where they visit the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, towards which all Muslims face during their daily prayers.
The Islamic faith plays a central role in Saudi society and culture. Thus, officially, all Saudi citizens are Muslims and speak Arabic, and Islam structures the Saudi way of life. The five daily prayers provide the rhythm for each day, and the weekend begins on Friday, the holiest day of the week, because of the special congregational Friday afternoon prayer.

The major Islamic religious holidays are Eid Al-Fitr, which commemorates the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid Al-Adha, which commemorates the completion of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca but is celebrated by all Muslims. These holidays fall on different dates from year to year according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
Geography also plays a determinative role in shaping Saudi society and culture. The dominant feature is, of course, the Arabian Desert, which has favoured the development of strong tribal structures. Historically, most inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula have lived a nomadic life, herding their camels, sheep, and goats from place to place to gain access to water and pasturage amid the expanses of sand. These nomadic Arabs are called Bedouins, which means “people of the desert.” Their nomadic tribal life accounts for the traditional, conservative, and patriarchal nature of Bedouin culture, which values loyalty to one’s immediate family, then the extended family, and, finally, the tribe [3].

Dramatic social change throughout the peninsula was set in motion in 1938 with the discovery of vast oil reserves. The commercial exploitation of these reserves catalyzed economic development and modernization. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s towns and cities experienced rapid growth in population and urban infrastructure, further accelerating the pace of cultural change. 
Throughout these developments, the Saudi legal system has remained based on the interpretation and enforcement of the Islamic law that derives from the Quran, which is called Sharia. Modern Saudi culture presents a fascinating mélange of social relations that are traditional, tribal, and patriarchal, a conservative way of life rooted in Islam, and a modern urban culture.

The four cornerstones of Saudi Arabian culture


Historically, then, Saudi culture has rested on four pillars:

  • Patriarchy. The men in Saudi families—fathers, brothers, and husbands—act as the guardians of the family honor and control the decision-making. Thus, the men protect the tribe and honour guests, and the women are expected to be compliant and display modesty. Recently, however, gender norms and roles have been shifting so that more Saudi women are receiving an education and entering the professional workforce. 
  • Generosity and hospitality. Honouring guests is a fundamental aspect of Saudi culture. Thus, the symbol of fires shining from Bedouins tents represents an ancient tradition of helping those in need and honouring visitors. 
  • Oral culture. The nomadic Arabs, in their constant travels, developed an oral culture based on memorized proverbs, stories, and poems. Contemporary Saudis pride themselves on their use of the Arabic language and are great storytellers. Accordingly, poetry is the most popular art among Saudis, who delight in writing and reciting it, and they use storytelling and metaphors constantly in their daily discourse. 
  • Genealogy and status. Saudis are proud of their ancestors and kinship relationships, as is reflected in the use bin or ibn, “son of” in personal names and al to indicate the family and clan. Likewise, Saudis are careful to use the appropriate titles when addressing one another formally, such as sheikh to refer to the elder or wise man who leads the tribe [3]

When in Saudi Arabia

The blend of traditional patriarchal culture with modern urbanism characterized by strong Western influences can make Saudi culture seem challenging to navigate for visitors. The following are some suggestions for those visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time to help ease these difficulties.
  • Avoid photographing anyone without asking permission, especially women.
  • Avoid situations where you may find yourself alone with a member of the opposite gender, for instance, riding in elevators.
  • The concept of losing face is very strong in Saudi culture, so avoid conflict and disagreements in public.
  • Elders are highly respected in Saudi culture; thus, it is customary to stand when an older person enters the room.
  • Saudis consider exposing the soles of the feet, whether bare or with shoes on, to be very offensive and embarrassing.
  • Always use the right hand (or wrist) to shake hands, eat, wave, or handle things since the left hand is considered unclean. 
  • Avoid wearing tight clothes, and try to keep your legs, arms, and shoulders covered. Women in certain areas need to cover their hair.

Good to know

Over the past few years, the government of Saudi Arabia has implemented social reforms as part of its Vision 2030 modernization initiative. Its main efforts in this regard have been to
  • curb the power of the religious police to dictate women’s dress, prayer-time closures, and the mingling of men and women;
  • end the decades-long ban on movie theatres;
  • lift the ban on women driving cars;
  • allow music to be played in restaurants and public places; and
  • allow Saudi women to travel freely and otherwise weaken the male guardianship system.
The 2019 decision by the government to open the country to tourism prepared the way for the investment of billions in culture, leisure, and entertainment projects over the coming years. For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia is inviting international tourists to come and experience the country’s cultural riches, thereby making clear the extent of the rapid changes in its sociocultural environment.

Body language

Saudis use body language, especially gesturing with their hands while talking, in a manner similar to other Middle Eastern nationals. The following guidelines can help visitors to understand this form of interaction.
  • Handshaking is an important gesture during introductions and business meetings. Again, always use the right hand for this purpose. Handshaking is commonly accompanied by the phrase Assalam Alaikum, meaning “may peace be upon you, to which the proper reply is wa Alaikum as-salam, “and peace be upon you [too].”
  • Avoid any physical contact with persons of the opposite gender, for instance, handshaking. Instead, greet them verbally and with a nod. 
  • Saudis may complement handshaking by placing the right hand over the heart to express appreciation of another’s presence. This gesture can also be used to greet a person of the opposite gender and, recently, has become a widely used substitute for physical contact during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • It is common for close friends of the same gender to kiss on the cheeks. Saudi men also commonly greet close friends by touching noses, a gesture indicating trust and respect. 
  • Again, titles are important in Saudi culture, especially for elders. So, never address an older person by their first name

Dress code

A general rule for attire in Saudi Arabia is that it be modest and conservative. As mentioned earlier, most of the skin should be covered. Women must wear long skirts, sleeves that reach at least the elbows, and high necklines. In some areas, women are expected to wear a scarf or abaya, a robe-like dress.

The expert recommends

Saudi Arabia is a highly collective society. Consequently, personal relations are extremely important when doing business with Saudis, who need time to build trust. In general, then,
  • Don’t try to do business with a Saudi partner until you have taken time to build a trusting relationship. Consequently, business decisions tend to be slow, especially at first. 
  • Physical face-to-face meetings are crucial for building trust, so virtual meetings are not an adequate substitute. 
  • Small talk before meetings serves to acquaint the participants. Common topics include family members (especially sons), health, current affairs, and hobbies. Allow the small talk to continue until your Saudi partner brings the conversation around to the subject of business.
  • Recommendations from and the intermediation of trusted individuals—known as wasta—play a key role in building business relationships and gaining trust.
  • Once more, titles are important in Saudi Arabia. Try to learn and use the appropriate term of address with individual Saudis, for instance, “Doctor” or “Professor.” For individuals without such credentials, “Mr.” can be added before the first name (e.g., “Mr. Mohammed”). 
  • The context may determine the meaning of certain forms of communication. For instance, the Arabic phrase Inshalla, “God willing,” is a very common response when someone is asked to do something. In polite conversation, Inshalla means “I will do [it]” but does not necessarily indicate that the speaker will carry out the request and may, depending on the context, indicate a polite refusal to fulfil a request. 
  • Make the effort to understand the decision-making structure within a company with which you are planning to do business and identify the specific individuals relevant to your plans. 
  • Keep in mind the importance of maintaining face in Saudi culture, never confront someone publicly; if it is necessary to correct misinformation, do so privately and politely.
  • Saudi business people pride themselves on their negotiating skills and patience, so considerable time may be required to finalize decisions
  • Saudis value generosity, so business meals represent opportunities to build relationships and trust


Applying Hofstede’s six dimensions of the Saudi national culture help to explain the distinct features of Saudi culture and society [4].

Power distance

For this dimension, Saudi Arabia has a score of 95, indicating that its society is very hierarchal. Thus, Saudis tend to accept that power is distributed unequally and to believe that everyone has a specific place in society. It is partly for this reason that titles are so important, people in power receive special treatment, and elders are respected. 



Saudi Arabia’s score of 25 for this dimension indicates that Saudi society is highly collective. The general disregard for individualism appears to be a natural outcome for a highly patriarchal society in which the head of the family and the tribe exercises strong moral authority over the in-group members. Likewise, members of a family or tribe are expected to help each other. Communication is very high context with more implicit and nonverbal body language.



Saudi Arabia’s score of 60 for this dimension reflects a strong preference for traditionally masculine characteristics such as competitiveness. Thus, success is admired and publicized, but, in their highly collective culture, concern for other in-group members plays a substantial role in assigning the responsibility for successes.


Uncertainty Avoidance

The score of 80 for this dimension points to Saudis’ general desire for a structured life with clear rules. However, people may not necessarily follow the law, therefore an effective enforcement system should be implemented. Experience is, therefore, highly prized, and academic degrees and titles are viewed as indicative of experience and knowledge.


Long-term Orientation

With a score of 36, Saudi society tends to be fairly short-term oriented, for which reason the focus is more on the past and present. Thus, traditions and long-established norms are protected and maintained through stories about ancestors. In particular, because Islam is considered the only and the absolute source of truth for Saudis, they are instinctively cautious about change and only inclined to make it when the authorities implement and enforce it. 



Saudi Arabia’s score of 52 for indulgence indicates that Saudis favour a positive mindset and enjoy leisure time with their families and travelling.

Overall, Saudi culture can be described as highly collective, characterized by large power distance and strong uncertainty avoidance, short-term oriented, and indulgent. Authority remains vested in the heads of families and tribes, who, in exchange for loyalty, serve as protectors and guarantors of justice [5]


References & Useful Links

[1] General Authority for Statistics Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (
[3] Bitar, A. (2020). Bedouin Visual Leadership in the Middle East: The Power of Aesthetics and Practical Implications. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
[4] Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind (3rd edition). New York: McGraw Hill.
[5] Wursten, H. (2019). The Seven Mental Images of National Cultures. Helsinki: Hofstede Insights.

Last updated: 10.09.2021 - 10:41
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