Useful cultural information for visitors to Saudi Arabia



There are social expectations for interactions between unrelated men and women, which it is polite to follow when visiting Saudi Arabia. Businessmen should wait for a woman to offer her hand to shake in a meeting. In other situations, keep a respectful distance. Hand-shakes between men are common. Saudis pride themselves on their hospitality, and it is impolite to begin business without engaging in small talk first. In formal meetings it is common to be offered a small cup of qahwa (Arabic coffee). One should accept the first cup, but have no more than three before indicating you have had enough by rocking the cup from side to side. To avoid offence, use the right hand when receiving gifts, eating and drinking.


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 issued a receipt, which is forwarded. The applicant presents this receipt, along with two passport-sized photographs, a completed application form, a copy of the letter of sponsorship and a 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.


The Saudi riyal 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. It is possible to withdraw riyals from foreign bank accounts from ATMs. One must have a local bank account to change currency, but many hotels exchange cash.


Arabic is the official language. English is widely spoken, but a grasp of basic Arabic salutations will be useful. Signs are in Arabic and English.


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.


All three of the Kingdom’s mobile operators – Saudi Telecom Company, Mobily and Zain – as well as Virgin Mobile and Lebara offer pre-paid SIM cards, which are easily obtained. Domestic calls and those within the GCC region are relatively inexpensive. Internet connection quality is variable. Wireless hotspots are available in most cities.


Taxis are metered and plentiful in most of the larger cities, and transport apps Uber, Careem and Easy Taxi are also available. Domestic flights are offered by Saudi Arabian Airlines and low-cost provider flynas. Both airlines provide internet booking. There are trains connecting Riyadh to the Eastern Province, as well as a High-Speed Rail Service connecting Makkah, Medina and Jeddah. The Saudi Public Transport Company also provides local bus services.

Business Hours

The working week is Sunday to Thursday, but some companies are open on Saturday morning as well. Public sector hours are approximately 7.00am to 3.00pm. Private sector hours vary, and businesses often close at 1.00pm and reopen from 4.00pm to 8.00pm. It is useful to note the short closing periods during prayer times. There are a total of five calls to prayer each day, with four taking place during business hours. Businesses will close briefly during prayer times, which last up to 30 minutes. Prayer times vary throughout the Kingdom and from day to day, but exact times are listed daily in local newspapers.


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 health insurance.


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The Report: Saudi Arabia 2019

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