The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the largest players in the Middle East. That said, it is also one of the most mysterious nations in the region. Up until this year, traveling to Saudi Arabia was virtually impossible for Americans unless they were invited to the country in a business capacity. Since the Kingdom has now opened itself up to the prospect of foreign tourists, it makes sense that many avid travelers would be interested to wander the country’s majestic desert landscapes, and marvel at its ancient architecture. However, a cloud of mystery still surrounds the culture considerations for visiting. Travelers to Saudi Arabia may be unsure of the best etiquette to follow when traveling in Saudi Arabia and when interacting with locals.
This guide aims to remove an element of that stress by providing you an inside insight into Saudi Arabia’s culture.
A Unique Traditional Culture
With influences from their Bedouin heritage, and deep Islamic roots, Saudi Arabian culture is very traditional and conservative. The nation may be at the forefront of the Middle East in terms of their business mindset (Saudi Arabia is the 15th largest global economy) , and they may be open minded about the prospect of allowing foreign travelers onto their soil but the country remains a very conservative Muslim nation and as such, foreign visitors and expatriates are expected to adhere to the customs and values set out by the Saudi governance.
By nature, Saudis are strongly family orientated and loyal, taking their family’s well being into consideration with every action that they perform. Despite their strong conservative culture, Saudis are warm, friendly and welcoming people. Though you don’t need to scare yourself to death worrying about committing a cultural faux pas or causing offence, it is always appreciated if you arrive in the country trying to be as respectful as the culture as possible, and demonstrating that you have tried to learn a little about the country and its languages before arrival.
Expect warm and friendly greetings when you arrive on Saudi soil, and a demonstration of the very best of Middle Eastern hospitality. The typical greeting for men is a handshake, which may also be accompanied by up to three kisses on the cheek. Women will shake hands with other female acquaintances but usually, Saudi women and men would not greet each other in public if they are not from the same family. The rules are more lenient for foreigners, but if you are a female traveling in Saudi Arabia, you should err on the side of caution (so as not to cause offense) and when greeting a Saudi male, you should wait for him to initiate a handshake or greeting.
A Polite Culture with Respectful Values
Saudis follow Sunnah, the example of Prophet Mohammed with regards to their social interactions and the way in which they communicate with others. Being rude and not behaving in a respectful and honorable manner towards others is extremely frowned upon in Saudi culture and as such, you will find Saudis to be relaxed, friendly, and welcoming. Saudis would be horrified if they caused offence or upset to people that they encountered.
As a conservative Islamic country, the standard dress of Saudi Arabia follows suit. Both men and women wear traditional religious clothing and you should expect to see women with their hair and faces covered. So as not to cause offence and receive unwanted stares, foreign visitors should follow suit of Saudi locals in their approach to dress.
Dress Code for Men
For men, the expectations around dress are a little more lenient. Men traveling in Saudi Arabia should wear long sleeved shirts at all times when outside, as well as full length trousers. Shorts are not permitted.
Dress Code for Women
Women traveling in Saudi Arabia should wear a traditional abaya. It is not expected that non Muslim foreign women wear a veil to cover their faces but they should carry a headscarf with them at all times since they may often be appropriate. As an example, when visiting mosques and other religious or important sites, hair should be covered as a sign of respect.
The main language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely spoken so travelers do not need to worry too much about being lost in translation. Urdu, Farsi and Turkish are also quite commonly known. By no means is it necessary to try and learn Arabic for your trip, but it is certainly polite to have a few useful words and phrases in your repertoire, like As-salāmu ʿalaykum (Hello), Shukran (Thank you), na’am (yes) and la (no).
Arguably one of the biggest differences between Saudi and American cultures is the daily interactions between the two genders. Gender-segregation is extremely prominent in all areas of society and as a result, malls, workplaces, restaurants, cafes, and numerous other establishments all feature entire female-only sections. Western tourists need to respect and adhere to these gender separated facilities too.
As a very devout Muslim nation, alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia and even the airlines servicing the nation do not offer it as part of their in-flight menus. In accordance with Saudi Laws, it is prohibited to produce, import, or consume alcohol on Saudi soil. There have been reports of expatriates and others selling or consuming alcohol illegally so you should be mindful of that. Penalties for being caught with alcohol are very high.
Though there are many aspects of Saudi Arabian culture that are certainly different to what you are used to, there is nothing to be overly afraid or concerned about. A trip to Saudi Arabia is a wonderful opportunity to see the world through an alternative perspective, and learn more about this unique, fascinating nation.