Etiquette and customs in Saudi Arabia

Updated 2022-02-24 05:51

Settling in Saudi Arabia can create a culture shock among many expats due to the lack of proper information. It is important to come with an open mind and to be prepared to join the Saudi society respectfully by following certain rules and understanding what's appropriate and what's not. Nowadays, the country is in a dynamic period of modernisation and some of the strict rules that used to define its image in the past are not applicable anymore.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is widely known as a conservative country, closely tied to the practices and beliefs of the Islamic religion. It is growing more and more liberal recently, under the leadership of the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. However, the society is strongly tied to its culture and customs. You should always be aware of how people behave and act, especially while out in public. Saudi Arabia enforces its customs on the general public, and lewd behaviour and disobedience are punishable by the Sharia law.

After opening up the country to tourists in September 2019, the government has implemented a new Public decency law. It can be found on the official web page for tourist visas application. Read the fines carefully, considering each violation. We've outlined a few things to keep in mind to ensure that you are able to adjust to the Saudi society and you may fit right in.

Saudi Arabia is a country with a lot of rules — especially for newcomers. Make sure to allow yourself time for adjustment, and don't hesitate to ask for advice from more experienced expats on the best behavioral practices.

We'll start off with some very basic rules to follow while in Saudi Arabia:

Avoid public displays of affection and profane language and gestures, as they are not consistent with the local culture.

Both women and men are required to dress modestly in public, avoiding any tight-fitting clothing or clothes with profane language or images. Wearing the black, loose cloak dress - abaya, is not obligatory for foreign women, but the shoulders and knees should remain covered in public.

Eating, drinking water, chewing a gum or smoking during the holy month of Ramadan (during fasting hours, i.e. .before the sunset, out in public) are forbidden and considered very inappropriate actions. “ Ramadan Kareem” and “Ramadan Mubarak” are the common greetings used during the holy month of Ramadan.

At prayer time, five times per day, music is turned off in public places, and many shops close briefly. It is allowed for the business to operate 24 hours, but the prayer time breaks should be respected.

Weekdays and school days are from Sunday to Thursday. The weekend break for government, public servants and educational institutions is on Friday and Saturday. On Fridays, Muslims perform a special and longer prayer service, so most of the private entities, shopping centres and restaurants are either closed from 11 am to around 1 pm (timings vary, according to the sun`s sky path), or open in the afternoon.

Saudi Arabia is a “dry” country. The sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol are illegal. This means that you won't be able to purchase or consume alcohol even on the territory of international hotels. While there is a black market for alcoholic drinks in the country, purchasing alcohol there is strongly advised against. Breaking the dry law comes with serious consequences, including imprisonment and deportation.

Eating with hands is appropriate, even at restaurants, but locals tend to eat with their right hand, as per the Hadiths of the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

Skipping lines while queuing is punishable.

Taking pictures of government buildings, military installations and palaces is forbidden. It's best to avoid taking pictures of locals as well — especially without their consent, as privacy is very important. For this reason, you won't be able to bring binoculars into the country — if found, they will be confiscated at the port of entry.

Practicing any religion other than Islam in public is illegal in Saudi Arabia as it is regarded as the intention to convert. With that, private practice of religions other than Islam is allowed. You can also bring religious texts into the country — provided these are for personal use. However, bringing in large quantities of religious texts is not allowed.

Saudi people are polite and well mannered, in general. They are curious to meet tourists and expats. Usually, the Saudis are communicative and welcoming, friendly hosts and interesting interlocutors. If one respects their customs and culture, they can make unforgettable friendships and memories in Saudi Arabia.

The religious police in Saudi Arabia

From 1976 to 2016, everyday life in Saudi Arabia used to be under the strict watch of the Mutawwa-Hai'a, also known as the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), also known as the religious police. The role of the religious police was to ensure that Saudi nationals were punctual in their prayers, followed all the social norms, dressed appropriately — and more. The religious police used to hold a lot of power in the country and were able to detain people for misbehavior.

In 2016, the powers of the CPVPV were sharply curtailed. While they still function today, their role is now minor. They are unable to detain, question or ask anyone for identification. If there is an offence to be reported, they need to report back to the police for action to be taken.


Homosexual relations are illegal in Saudi Arabia and subject to severe penalties. Transgender people are also generally advised against traveling to Saudi Arabia as they may face severe legal troubles if discovered by the authorities in Saudi Arabia.

Compound life

Life in Saudi Arabia can be quite difficult to adjust to for a lot of expats. This is why most foreigners moving to the country prefer to settle in western-style compounds. These are secure gated communities complete with a whole set of amenities: from gyms and swimming pools to pre-schools and convenience stores. Life within the walls of a compound like this is pretty much unconstrained: expats can dress the way they like, freely interact with the opposite sex and more.

Moving into a compound helps minimize the culture shock and lets expats preserve (for the most part) the lifestyle they are used to back home. Note, however, that outside the compound walls keeping to the rules and social norms of the country is essential.

Major holidays in Saudi Arabia

There are three main holidays in Saudi Arabia:

  • Eid Al Fitr (Ramadan)
  • Eid Al Adha
  • and National Day

National Day is the only of the three holidays that is celebrated on a fixed date every year — September 23rd. Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha are celebrated according to the Islamic lunar calendar.

The Islamic lunar calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar by about 11 days — and the start of both holidays shifts every year.

National Day

Saudi Arabia's National Day marks the unification of Najd and Hijaz and the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The holiday is celebrated with fireworks and parades, music, traditional outfits and Saudi flags. There are special festive events held all throughout the Kingdom.

Eid Al Fitr

The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar marks the holy month of Ramadan. This month is dedicated to fasting and reflection. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from drinking and eating from dawn till dusk. The month of Ramadan starts at the first sighting of the new crescent moon and lasts for 29 or 30 days — depending on the next crescent sighting. The holiday concludes with a three-day holiday and breaking of the fast called Eid Al Fitr.


During Ramadan, do not drink or eat in public places. You can keep to your normal lifestyle in the privacy of your home — however, outside, avoid breaking the rules of Ramadan in any way.

Eid Al Adha

Eid Al Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, takes place on the 10th day of the final month of the Islamic calendar. The festival commemorates the sacrifice of Ibrahim as an act of obedience to Allah's command. On this day, many Muslim families still follow tradition and sacrifice a sheep, goat or camel.

Business culture in Saudi Arabia

Historically, Saudi Arabia has always been involved in international business relations. However, the country's inner business culture has always been guided by tradition and a long list of unspoken rules. With the new push towards a more open economy (as part of the Saudi Vision 2030), things are becoming more relaxed. However, much of the country's business networking and interactions are still guided by conservative values and strict hierarchy.

The first thing to keep in mind about the local business and work culture is that Saudi Arabia is a deeply hierarchical society. You will find this hierarchy observed in the workplace, during business negotiations, in meetings and more. Note that most key decisions are traditionally made by high-level management, and most of the team are rarely included in strategy planning or brainstorming sessions.

A lot of businesses in Saudi Arabia are family-run enterprises, which often makes decision making a family affair. You may also find that new practices and ideas take longer to get implemented as operations are often slowed down by corporate complications and bureaucratic delays. Nepotism is another issue to take into account.

When working in Saudi Arabia, you should be prepared to attend a lot of business meetings. Business meetings often take place over coffee, during lunch or dinner and often take place in rather informal locations like restaurants and hotel lobbies. Business meetings are often looked at as an opportunity to build trust and get to know the other party — while business matters are typically discussed later on. Small talk is very common and some of the “safe” topics include family, culture, sport, business, art, etc. It's best to avoid topics related to politics, religion or the royal family.

During business meetings and negotiations, it is important that you listen to your host and not disagree with them — at least publicly. Sensitive matters should be discussed in private — and it's best to do it in a way that doesn't place blame on any party. Note that discussing the price or, simply, bargaining, is quite normal during negotiations.

If you are giving a speech or making a presentation, keep it brief and don't get too technical. Visuals are generally appreciated, and having your presentation translated into Arabic will also be seen as a sign of respect.

While Saudi Arabia is a very strict country when it comes to social rules and norms, many Saudi nationals are used to interacting with foreigners. This means that you can often ask for advice, and minor cultural faux pas will be interpreted as genuine mistakes. With that, in order to avoid trouble and to be respectful of local traditions, make sure to do proper research before visiting Saudi Arabia and always stay on the side of caution.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.