Etiquette and customs in Saudi Arabia

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Updated 2020-04-21 14:59

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 any more.

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.

The etiquette 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.
  • 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. 
  • “ Ramadan Kareem” and “Ramadan Mubarak” are the common greetings, used during the holy month of Ramadan.
  • Saudi Arabia is a “dry” country. The sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol are illegal. 
  • 'Inshallah' - meaning 'In God's Will'' is a common phrase used in daily speech
  • 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 people without their consent, or photographing crime scenes and traffic incidents, are not allowed  
  • Consideration and politeness are widely practised.

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.

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.