Skycore Aviation has over 10 years’ experience providing helicopter personnel around the world including Saudi Arabia. We continue our series on Living and Working in Saudi Arabia with a focus on the business setting – the calendar, environment and meetings.
The Islamic Calendar
The Islamic calendar, known as the Hijri, is different than the Western (Gregorian) calendar. The Hijri is a lunar calendar, based on the cycles of the moon, containing 12 months with 354 or 355 days in the year. With the difference of days per year between the two calendars, Islamic holy event dates change each year in the Western calendar.
In addition, the first year of the Hijri calendar occurred in 622 AD. The Islamic calendar starts on this date because it’s the year the Prophet Muhammad and his followers migrated to Mecca. As a result, the year 2018 in the Western calendar is year 1439 AH “in the year of the Hijra”. For Muslims, the observance of the Hijri is a sacred duty and is used in all business transactions.
The Business Environment
Business customs in Saudi Arabia are unique when compared to Western countries.
English is widely spoken in both business and government settings in Saudi. The handshake is a widely accepted practice in Saudi Arabia although the shake will be longer and slightly weaker than we are accustomed to in the West. After a handshake, a sign of respect or thanks is a palm raised to the chest. An exchange of business cards also occurs but with little fanfare. The card should be translated into Arabic on one side and should always be given with the right (clean) hand. Coffee and tea are also popular in the workplace. When drinking the traditional cardamom tea, wobbling the cup when giving it back to the host indicates you’re finished.
Dress and appearance influence Saudi opinions, so it is important. Men in professional positions wear a suit and tie, but during the summer the jacket is simply carried over the arm. Women should always dress conservatively with loose fitting clothing. Skirt length should at least be below the knee or preferably to the ankle. A headscarf may be required at times and should be carried for those situations.
The significant difference in Saudi is the pace of business, so patience is a necessity. Relationships and trust must be established long before a business transaction is even considered. Business discussions and deals can be protracted. The effect is decision making is slow and will not be rushed. The pace is further supported by the Saudi belief that God is in control. There is no need to rush. This belief is demonstrated by the often quoted phrase, ‘In Sha Allah’ (if God wills it).
Meetings in Saudi are very different than those in the West. An initial meeting may occur with the Saudi host as well as various other businessmen that you’ve never met and are unrelated to your endeavor. Again, patience is necessary as each group or individual will take turns speaking with the host. At the first meeting, pleasantries may dominate the discussions with questions about one’s health, family and travel. Let the host set the tempo. A meeting may take several hours and appear to deliver little tangible results, but it is essential to building a business relationship. Meetings are typically not held in private until trust is established.
Meetings should also be scheduled weeks in advance and their timing should be flexible. It’s not unusual for meetings to start late and last for several hours. However, Westerners should be on time with the understanding that business schedules and arbitrary deadlines are unimportant.
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