Saudi Arabia is a socially conservative country and interaction between unrelated men and women is prohibited. Businessmen should wait for a woman to offer her hand to shake in a meeting. In all other situations, keep a respectful distance. Handshakes between men are common. Saudis pride themselves on their hospitality and it is impolite to begin business without engaging in some small talk first. In formal meetings, it is common to be offered a small cup of Arabic coffee, called qahwa. No more than three cups should be taken before indicating you have had enough by gently rocking the cup from side to side. To avoid offence, it is important to use the right hand when receiving gifts, eating and drinking.
VISAS: Nationals of non-GCC countries and some Arab nations need visas. Business visas require a letter of sponsorship from the firm being visited. The Saudi counterpart lodges an application and is then issued a receipt, which is forwarded on. The applicant presents this receipt, along with two passport-sized photographs, a completed application form, a copy of the letter of sponsorship and the fee to their local embassy or consulate. The process varies by country and an electronic application code from the Ministry of Interior’s website may be required. Check with your local embassy or consulate in advance as to variations. Single-entry, as well as three- and six-month multiple-entry visas can be issued. Work and residence visas are also available, as are visas for family members. These require a letter of authorisation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a medical report authorised by the applicant’s foreign office, a copy of the contract and employment terms, and copies of qualifications for employment. Visas are not issued to travellers who have an Israeli stamp in their passport.
CURRENCY: The Saudi riyal (SR or SAR) is pegged to the US dollar at SR3.75:$1. Credit cards are accepted across the Kingdom and ATMs can be found even in remote places. One must have a local bank account to change currency, but many hotels exchange cash.
LANGUAGE: Arabic is the official language, and while many businesspeople speak fluent English, some do not. A grasp of basic Arabic salutations will go a long way. Signs are generally bilingual (Arabic and English).
ELECTRICITY: There is a mix of UK-style three-pin, two-pin and US-style plugs, as well as both 120 V and 220 V. Electric adaptors and converters are essential.
COMMUNICATIONS: All three of the Kingdom’s mobile operators – Saudi Telecommunications Company, Mobily and Zain – offer prepaid SIM cards, which can be easily obtained nationwide. Domestic phone calls and those within the GCC region are relatively inexpensive. Internet connection quality is variable. There are many internet cafes in most cities, in addition to a growing number of wireless hotspots.
TRANSPORT: Taxis are metered and plentiful in most of the larger cities. Domestic flights are offered by Saudi Arabian Airlines and low-cost provider flynas. The airlines both provide internet booking facilities. There is also train transportation connecting the central province of Riyadh to the Eastern Province. In addition, the Saudi Public Transport Company provides bus services throughout the Kingdom.
BUSINESS HOURS: The workweek is Sunday to Thursday, but some companies are open on Saturday morning as well. Public sector hours are approximately 7am to 3pm. Private sector hours vary, and it is not uncommon for businesses to close at 1pm and reopen from 4pm to 8pm. It is also wise to note the short closing periods during prayer times. There are a total of five prayer calls per day, with four taking place during business hours. These are strictly enforced and can last for up to 30 minutes. Prayer times vary throughout the Kingdom and from day to day. A list of prayer times appears daily in the local newspapers.
HEALTH: A full range of medical services is available in all major cities. Foreigners should take health insurance, as it is unlikely their home country will have reciprocal relations with Saudi Arabia. Foreigners who seek to reside permanently must have insurance.
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