Saudi Arabia - Country Commercial Guide
Business Travel

Includes information on business customs, travel advisory, visa requirements, acceptable business etiquette, dress, business cards, gifts, etc.

Last published date: 2019-10-13

Business Customs

The website of the U.S. Commercial Service in Saudi Arabia has a section on Saudi Culture, Customs, and Business Etiquette. For more information, please visit the www.Export.gov.

In addition, the following websites of the U.S. Department of State contain a wealth of information useful to business traveler to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including updated travel advisories.

http://riyadh.usembassy.gov

U.S. Department of State: Travel

U.S. Department of State: Business

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 who drop by.  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.

Many Saudi businessmen have been educated 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 advised to wear loose-fitting and concealing clothing with long skirts, elbow-length sleeves and modest necklines.  There is strict gender separation in the Kingdom and restaurants maintain separate sections or single men and families.  Saudi wives are often excluded from social gatherings or are entertained separately.

Travel Advisory

Current travel warnings and advisories can be found on the U.S. State Department’s site.  Travelers should check this link for any updates to the security situation before leaving the United States.

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens about the security situation in Saudi Arabia and reminds U.S. citizens of recommended security precautions.  The Department of State urges U.S. citizens carefully to consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia.  It is important to note that there remains an ongoing security threat due to the continued presence of terrorist groups, some affiliated with Al-Qaida, who may target Western interests, housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas and other facilities where Westerners congregate.  These terrorist groups may employ a wide variety of tactics and also may target Saudi government facilities and economic/commercial targets within the Kingdom. Significant improvements in the capacity and capability of Saudi security and intelligence forces have greatly improved the security environment.  Although much improved, the situation remains fragile. Saudi authorities have announced that 34 terrorist attacks, some resulting in significant loss of life, occurred in Saudi Arabia in 2016.  These included three coordinated bombings on July 4, 2016, in Medina, Qatif, and near the American Consulate General in Jeddah.

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 also 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, 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. Whenever threat information is specific, credible, and non-counterable, this threat information will be made available to the American public. In those instances, the Embassy and Consulates will keep the local American citizen community apprised through the Warden 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.

http://riyadh.usembassy.gov/amcitmessages.html.

All travelers are encouraged to register their trip online through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) website. 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 am 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, and Worldwide Caution. 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.

Visa Requirements

A valid, unexpired passport and a visa are required for entry into Saudi Arabia.  On September 27, 2019 the Saudi government began issuing tourist visas to American citizens. American citizens may now apply for an “e-visa” online (https://visa.visitsaudi.com) prior to visiting the Kingdom, 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 visa cost 440 Saudi riyals ($117), including a health insurance fee.  The tourists visiting the country will be obliged to follow the regulations that Saudi Arabia has mentioned on its travel website. 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. 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.

Exit controls: Please be advised that American citizens, especially if admitted to the Kingdom on a work visa, may still need the permission of a male guardian and/or sponsor to exit the country and will likely need to apply for an exit visa from the Saudi government.

Public Decency: Saudi officials simultaneously released new guidelines for “public decency” for foreign visitors to the Kingdom. 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, cutting in line, playing loud music, and wearing clothing with profane or obscene images.

Business visas: “Business visas” are routinely issued to U.S. visitors who do not have an invitation letter from a Saudi company, and the visa applicants must provide evidence that they are engaged in legitimate commercial activity. “Commercial visas” are issued by invitation from Saudi companies to applicants who have a specific reason to visit a Saudi company. 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 general for 180 days

American citizens have not recently encountered difficulties obtaining visas and entering Saudi Arabia despite previous travel to Israel or birth in Israel.  

Commercial visa: 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 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 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 note that the U.S. Embassy and Consulates-General cannot sponsor private American citizens for Saudi visas.  Please visit the following website: Export.gov  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 often required to use this process.

Resident visas (Iqama) Resident visas also are available through a separate process. A medical report, including an AIDS test, is required to obtain a work and residence permit.  This includes a medical certification.  For further information on entry requirements, travelers may contact the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, 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.  Applicants for U.S. visas should apply through the Global Support Services site at: US Travel Documents General travel information and travel advisories are available at the State Department travel website.

Currency

The Saudi Riyal (SAR) is fixed to the United States Dollar at an exchange rate of SAR 3.75 = $ 1.00.

Telecommunications/Electronics

Telephone

Country code: 966.

A sophisticated telecommunications network and satellite, microwave and cable systems span the country.

Mobile Telephone

International roaming agreements exist with some mobile phone companies.  Coverage is mostly good.

Internet

The Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC) 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 web sites 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.

Media

Saudi Arabia exercises tight media control and criticism of the government, the royal family, and religious tenets are not tolerated, although there are signs of some relaxation of these controls.  The state-run Broadcasting Service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) is responsible for all broadcasting in the Kingdom.  The Minister of Culture and Information oversees radio and TV operations.  Viewers in the country’s eastern region can pick up TV stations 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.

Press

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.

Electric

Saudi Arabia uses 220 Volt and 60 Hz AC electricity.

Transportation

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, Saudi Arabian Airlines, and one private, low-cost airline, NAS Air. 

Women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.  Short-term visitors may drive on their U.S. driver’s license.  American men and women employed 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.  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.

Language

The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely used in business and some 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.

Health

Good modern medical care and medicines are available in several hospitals and health centers in major Saudi cities, but only adequate 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 types of treatment, 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 vying to partner with American 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 check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.  A hotline at 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) and the CDC website give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries of the world. The CDC publication “Health Information for International Travel” can be found at the CDC website.

Local Time, Business Hours and Holidays

Saudi Arabia’s time zone is UTC/GMT+03:00.

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 holy city Mecca.  The prayer times are published in newspapers and come at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening. Stores and restaurants close for approximately 30 minutes at these times.  When staging promotional events or product demonstrations, one must anticipate these prayer breaks. 

Business hours vary in different parts of the country.  Saudi companies usually close for two to four hours in the afternoon and remain open throughout the early evening.  Retail stores 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.

Work Week:

U.S. Embassy: 08:00 - 17:00 Sunday - Thursday

Saudi Government: 08:00 - 14:30 Sunday – Thursday

Banks: 09:00 - 17:00 Sunday - Thursday

Businesses: 08:00 - 12:00 and 16:00 – 20:00 Sunday - Thursday

There are two Islamic religious holidays during which most businesses close for at least three working days and all government offices close for a longer period.  During these holidays it is very difficult to make contacts or transact business: The Eid al-Fitr holiday occurs at the end of the holy month of Ramadan (month of fasting).

The next Eid al-Fitr holiday will be on or about May 24 – 28, 2020

Eid al-Adha celebrates the time of year when pilgrims arrive from around the world to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj.  The next Eid al-Adha holiday will be on or about July 30 – Aug 4, 2020.

Please note that the dates of these two religious holidays are governed by the lunar calendar; exact dates are subject to change and will be confirmed by the Saudi religious authorities at a later date.

Please visit the website of the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia as these holidays draw near to verify their exact dates.

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours.  Office hours are shortened and shifted to the evening, and people may be affected by the fasting and customary late night social gatherings. During Ramadan, 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 complete list of U.S. and local holidays observed by the U.S. Embassy and Consulates General in Saudi Arabia can also be found on U.S. Embassy website.

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.  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 Web Resources

http://riyadh.usembassy.gov

U.S. Department of State: Travel

U.S. Department of State: Business