Includes information on business customs, travel advisory, visa requirements, acceptable business etiquette, dress, business cards, gifts, etc.
While modern Saudi Arabia has adopted numerous business methods and styles of the West, many cultural differences remain. Most important is that business will generally only be conducted after a degree of trust and familiarity has been established. Considerable time may be spent exchanging courtesies, and several visits may be needed to establish a business relationship. Business visitors should arrange their itineraries to allow for long meetings, as traditional Saudis often maintain an “open office” in which they will sign papers, take telephone calls and converse with friends or colleagues during the engagement. Tea and traditional Saudi coffee are usually offered. One to three cups of Saudi coffee should be taken for politeness, after which the cup may be wiggled between thumb and forefinger when returning it to the server to indicate that you do not need more.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative culture, the role of women within the society is quickly changing and extending into the workplace following historic reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud. This has led to growth in the number of working women in Saudi Arabia and a rise in female entrepreneurship. Women in business or workplaces will shake hands with other women or place hands over the heart when greeting.
Many Saudi businessmen have been educated in or have traveled extensively in the West and are sophisticated in dealing with Americans. For the most part, travelers can rely on Western manners and standards of politeness in dealing with business counterparts, with a few additional rules that may be observed. One should avoid sitting at any time with the sole of the foot pointed at the host or other guest. Unless one is on familiar terms with a Saudi, it may be discourteous to ask about a man’s wife or daughters; ask instead about his family.
Shoes are often removed before entering a Saudi living room (majlis). If you are invited to the home of a Saudi for a party or reception, a meal is normally served at the end of the evening, and guests will not linger long after finishing. Be observant and adapt your behavior to the customs of your host.
Dress is conservative for both men and women. Men should not wear shorts or tank tops. While women are no longer required to wear abayas, they are advised to wear “modest clothing,” i.e. loose-fitting and concealing clothing with long pants or skirts, elbow-length sleeves that also cover the shoulders, and modest necklines. Saudi Arabia no longer requires restaurants to have separate entrances segregated by gender, instead it is left up to the businesses to decide. All Saudi nationals are required to show family ID or proof of relationship on checking into hotels. This is not required for foreign tourists. All women, including Saudis, can book and stay in hotels alone providing ID on check-in. Unmarried foreign couples visiting the country as tourists are now allowed to rent hotel rooms together. Saudi wives are often excluded from social gatherings or are entertained separately.
Current travel warnings and advisories can be found on the U.S. State Department website at https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/saudi-arabia.html.
The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia. Terrorist groups continue to plot attacks in Saudi Arabia. Regional actors hostile to Saudi Arabia have conducted destructive and sometimes lethal attacks against a variety of targets including critical infrastructure, military facilities, airports, and energy facilities throughout the country, as well as vessels in Red Sea shipping lanes. Riyadh, Yanbu, areas in proximity to Jeddah, the civilian airport in Abha, military installations in the south, and specific oil and gas facilities are examples of recent targets. The Islamic Republic of Iran has supplied Yemen-based Houthis and other regional proxy groups with weapons, including drones, missiles, and rockets. Houthi militants continue to plan and conduct attacks against locations in Saudi Arabia. Violence associated with Iran-supported groups represents a significant threat. U.S. citizens living and working near military bases and critical civilian infrastructure, particularly in the Eastern Province and areas near the border with Yemen, are at heightened risk of missile and drone attack.
The State Department issues consular information for every country of the world with information on such matters as the health conditions, crime, unusual currency or entry requirements, any areas of instability and the location of the nearest American embassy or Consulate in the subject country. For consular information related to travel to Saudi Arabia, information can be found on the following sites: https://sa.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services and https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/saudi-arabia.html.
U.S. citizens who choose to visit Saudi Arabia are strongly urged to avoid staying in hotels or housing compounds that do not apply stringent security measures and are advised to be aware of their surroundings when visiting commercial establishments frequented by Westerners. U.S. citizens also are advised to keep a low profile, vary times and routes of travel, exercise caution while driving and entering or exiting vehicles, and ensure that travel documents and visas are current and valid. From time to time, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Saudi Arabia may restrict travel of official Americans or suspend public services for security reasons. Threat information that is specific, credible, and non-counterable is made available to the American public. In those instances, the Embassy and Consulates will keep the local American citizen community apprised through the Mascot system and make every effort to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens. Security messages can be found on the U.S. Embassy Riyadh website: https://sa.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/security-and-travel-information.
All travelers are encouraged to register their trip to Saudi Arabia through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://step.state.gov/step/. Updated information on travel and security in Saudi Arabia may also be obtained from the Department of State by calling 1-888-407-4747 from within the United States and Canada, or from outside the United States and Canada on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays). For additional information, consult the Department of State’s Country Specific Information for Saudi Arabia, at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/saudi-arabia-travel-advisory.html. U.S. citizens who require emergency services may telephone the Embassy in Riyadh at (966) (11) 488-3800, the Consulate General in Jeddah at (966) (12) 667-0080, or the Consulate General in Dhahran at (966) (13) 330-3200.
A valid, unexpired passport and a visa are required for entry into Saudi Arabia. In September 2019, the Saudi Arabian Government began issuing tourist visas to American citizens. American citizens may now apply for an “e-visa” at https://visa.visitsaudi.com prior to visiting the Saudi Arabia, or at an airport upon arrival. Saudi e-visas are generally valid for one year; the maximum allowable stay during a visit is three months. The U.S. government has no control over the issuance or denial of Saudi entry or exit visas and issuance of a visa does not guarantee entry. The Saudi e-visa allows tourism-related activities and Umrah pilgrimage, excluding during the Hajj season. The Hajj pilgrimage is not allowed on the e-visa. Eligible female travelers are now allowed visit Saudi Arabia without a male guardian. Persons holding tourist visas are not authorized to work or study and will not be able to open bank accounts or perform other bureaucratic procedures for which a residence permit (iqama) is required.
Saudi officials recently released new guidelines for “public decency” for foreign visitors to the Saudi Arabia. Visitors are instructed to dress “modestly,” but abayas and head coverings are not required for female visitors. The guidelines, which are available on the Visit Saudi website, include prohibitions on taking photos of persons without their permission, prohibited books or literature, cutting in line, playing loud music, and wearing clothing with profane or obscene images. Please refer to the Saudi Customs website for a detailed list of prohibited items.
Business & Commercial Visas
Business visas are routinely issued to U.S. visitors who do not have an invitation letter from a Saudi company, and visa applicants must provide evidence that they are engaged in legitimate commercial activity. Business and commercial visas must be obtained prior to arrival. In compliance with the 2008 U.S.-Saudi Arabia visa reciprocity agreement, Saudi Arabia now regularly issues U.S. citizens five-year, multiple-entry visas at Saudi embassies, consulates, and ports of entry that allow the visitor to stay in general for 180 days.
In order to obtain a commercial visa, a U.S. applicant is required to submit a letter of invitation from a sponsoring entity in Saudi Arabia. The invitation letter must be in Arabic. The American applicant may be asked to present a copy of the original letter at the port of entry, and the letter must be on the sponsoring organization’s letterhead and must bear an authenticating stamp of the local Saudi Chamber of Commerce. The letter should name the visa applicant, passport number, company name and address, approximate dates of visit, and reason for visit (e.g., business meetings). It is recommended that the American applicant’s company use the company’s letterhead when requesting cooperation of the Saudi embassy/consulates in issuing the visa. The visa applicant must apply for and receive the visa prior to departing the United States at either the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. or at Saudi Consulates-General in Houston, Los Angeles, or New York City.
If the American applicant does not have a Saudi sponsor, the U.S. Commercial Service offices in Saudi Arabia can advise on how to make initial contacts with potential sponsors. Please visit https://www.trade.gov/saudi-arabia to connect with the U.S. Commercial Service in Saudi Arabia. Please note that the U.S. Embassy and Consulates cannot sponsor private American citizens for Saudi visas. Occasionally the Saudi consular officer may require the applicant to obtain the visa through a more time-consuming process involving approval by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Women traveling alone, Americans of Arab origin, and private consultants are more often required to use this process.
American citizens have not recently encountered difficulties obtaining visas and entering Saudi Arabia, despite previous travel to Israel or birth in Israel. Currently, Saudi Arabia does not bar entry to visitors based on places they have previously visited.
Resident Visas (Iqama)
Resident visas also are available through a separate process. A medical report, including an HIV test, is required to obtain a work and residence permit. For further information on entry requirements, travelers may contact the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., or one of the Consulates in New York, Houston, or Los Angeles. Please visit the Saudi Embassy website: https://saudiembassy.net.
U.S. companies that require travel of foreign businesspersons to the United States should be advised that most foreign nationals require a visa to enter the United States. Information on applying for a U.S. nonimmigrant visa is available on the U.S. Embassy website: https://sa.usembassy.gov.
The Saudi riyal (SAR) is fixed to the United States dollar at an exchange rate of SAR 3.75 = $ 1.00.
Saudi Arabia has a sophisticated telecommunications network and satellite, microwave, and cable systems that span the country. The country code for Saudi Arabia is +966. The main city codes are Riyadh (11), Jeddah/Makkah (12), and Dammam/Dhahran/Jubail (13).
International roaming agreements exist with some mobile phone companies.
The Saudi Telecommunications Company, Mobily, and other telecommunication companies provide Internet facilities in most cities. E-mail can also be accessed from internet connections at many hotels and internet cafes. Access is blocked to many websites featuring sensitive political, religious, and/or social content, or content that is deemed obscene and anti-Islamic. E-mail traffic may be monitored in certain cases.
Saudi Arabia exercises tight media control, and criticism of the government, the royal family, and religious tenets are not tolerated. The state-run Broadcasting Service of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) is responsible for all broadcasting in Saudi Arabia. The Minister of Culture and Information oversees radio and television operations. Viewers in the country’s eastern region can receive television channels and signals from relatively liberal Gulf neighbors. The government blocks access to websites that it deems offensive. Newspapers tend to follow the lead of the state-run news agency on whether or not to publish stories on sensitive subjects.
The main newspapers include Al-Jazirah, Al-Riyadh, and Okaz. English-language dailies include Arab News and the Saudi Gazette. Pan-Arab papers, subject to censorship, are available.
In Saudi Arabia the associated plug is type G, a plug that has three rectangular pins in a triangular pattern. Saudi Arabia operates on a 230V supply voltage and 60Hz.
The business centers of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam/Al-Khobar/Dhahran have international airports served by a variety of international airlines. Domestic air service is provided by national carrier Saudia, and low-cost airlines Flyadeal, Flynas, SaudiGulf, and Nesma Airlines. Women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Short-term visitors may drive on their U.S. driver’s license. American men and women residing in Saudi Arabia should obtain a local driver’s license with the Department of Traffic Police. Traffic accidents are a significant hazard in Saudi Arabia. Main roads in the cities and those connecting cities are monitored by ‘Saher’ traffic cameras. Vehicle insurance is required by Saudi law, and all vehicles must have at least third-part liability insurance. Driving habits are generally poor, and accidents involving vehicles driven by minors are not uncommon. In the event of a traffic accident resulting in personal injury, all persons involved (if not in the hospital) may be taken to the local police station. Drivers are likely to be held for several days until responsibility is determined and any reparations paid. In case of an accident, you should contact ‘Najm,’ a national insurance company that resolves traffic accidents and related formalities and procedures.
>The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely used in business and mass communication such as signs and notices. Most road signs are in Arabic, while major highways and streets in major cities display road signs in both Arabic and English.
Good, modern medical care and medicines are available in several hospitals and health centers in major Saudi cities, but only mediocre medical care may be available in the outlying areas. Most Western expatriates in major Saudi cities find in-country medical care adequate for routine care and minor surgery. In recent years, however, medical care has evolved in Saudi Arabia, with sophisticated treatments such as open-heart surgery, kidney transplants, and cancer treatment being undertaken. Most drugs available in the United States are available in Saudi Arabia. Many local hospitals and healthcare companies are interested in partnering with U.S. healthcare providers. In 2005, for example, the Cleveland Clinic set up a joint venture medical center in Jeddah, the International Medical Center, and worked on several joint initiatives, including e-health, teleconferencing, consultations, and continuing education programs. In 2014, the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, in conjunction with Aramco, started offering health care services for Aramco employees.
A yellow-fever certificate is required for travelers coming from afflicted countries. A meningitis vaccine is recommended before coming to Jeddah and the Western Region, especially during the annual Muslim pilgrimage rituals of Hajj and Umrah. There is a risk of malaria throughout the year in most of the southern region and in certain rural areas of the western region, except for Mecca and Medina. There are periodic outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in Saudi Arabia.
Travelers can find the latest health advisories and information on food and drinking water safety for countries around the world on the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/.
Local Time, Business Hours and Holidays
Saudi Arabia’s time zone is UTC/GMT+03:00. Business hours vary in different parts of the country. Saudi companies usually close for two to four hours in the afternoon and remain open into the early evening. Retail stores often close for the noon prayer and reopen around 4:00 p.m., often staying open until late in the evening. The normal workweek runs from Sunday through Thursday. Friday is the Muslim weekly holy day.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country that requires strict adherence to Islamic principles. Five times a day, Muslims are called to pray in the direction of the “Kaaba,” located in the of city Mecca. The prayer times are published in newspapers and come approximately at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening. Stores and restaurants were previously required to close for approximately 30 minutes at these times. However, this requirement was recently loosened, giving businesses the option to remain open. When staging promotional events or product demonstrations, it is still best to anticipate these prayer breaks, as many businesses still do close.
During the major holidays of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha, expect reduced government business hours and closures. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours; accordingly, business travelers should not drink, eat, or smoke in public during daylight or in the presence of fasting Muslims. Major hotels offer special daytime food services for their non-Muslim guests. The Eid al-Fitr holiday occurs at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha celebrates the time of year when pilgrims arrive from around the world to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj. The timing of these holidays shift throughout the year based on the lunar calendar. The complete list of U.S. and local holidays observed by the U.S. Embassy and Consulates General in Saudi Arabia can be found on U.S. Embassy website at https://sa.usembassy.gov/holiday-calendar/.
Temporary Entry of Materials or Personal Belongings
For temporary entry of goods for promotional purposes, importers need an invoice with the value of the goods endorsed by the local Chamber of Commerce or the U.S.-Saudi Business Council and a certificate of origin also to be authenticated by one of the aforementioned entities. The invoice should state that the goods are being imported for exhibition purposes only and will be re-exported. Saudi Customs requires a deposit for these goods (equivalent to the applicable tariff rate on the total value of the goods). This deposit is refundable when the exhibition is over and upon showing a document that the owner of the equipment officially participated in a trade show. Additionally, the customs authorities will collect handling charges (for details, visit https://www.zatca.gov.sa/ar/pages/default.aspx). Reimbursement takes between two to four weeks. If the goods are meant for demonstration purposes to a government entity, a letter from that entity is required indicating the nature and purpose of the goods.
Travel Related Resources
- U.S. Embassy Riyadh
- U.S. Department of State