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Work Culture and Labour Market for Expats in Saudi Arabia

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: December 2015

Work Culture

The work culture in Saudi Arabia is very different from Western culture. You will probably know some of the local customs, but it is worth taking the time to learn some more.

Greetings in the Kingdom are ritualised, with a correct thing to say and a correct response. When entering a meeting, you should first shake hands with most senior man in the room. Then you should shake hands with all the other men, moving anti-clockwise, giving eye contact to each. If there are any women in the room, do not shake hands with them.

It is also important to use the correct title. The most senior person should be greeted with ‘sheikh’ male (or sheikha if it is a woman, which is technically possible) which means ‘chief’, or with any other title such as hajji. If they have no other title, you should use sayed for a man and sayeda or ‘madame’ for a woman. Business cards are usually exchanged on meeting someone. Not everyone has a business card, but if you have one, it should be translated into Arabic on the reverse side.

It is important to show respect at work, even more so than it is elsewhere. The Saudis are quite open people. The dress code is very strict. Men should always wear formal clothes. Women, meanwhile, will need to wear a full abaya and a headscarf to cover themselves up almost completely, as in any situation outside their own home.

There is a great deal of formality in the workplace. Status and hierarchy are still very important, and there is a strict chain of command. Senior colleagues have almost exclusive input in decision-making, even though they may not speak much during negotiations. The decision-making process is often very slow, due to the complex business bureaucracy and the Islamic custom of waiting for guidance from God. Giving presents is not common in Saudi Arabian business culture, as gifts are seen as personal and are only usually exchanged between close friends.

Compared with business meetings in Western countries, those in Saudi Arabia are lengthy affairs. Treating business relationships as transactional will be counter-productive. It is important to establish firm relationships with your business partners in order to build up trust. Negotiations may be tough, since Saudi Arabians are experts at bargaining. Stay firm and courteous at all times, as impatience or anger may be regarded as a sign of weakness. Be prepared to compromise a little in the long-term interests of the relationship.

Usually there is informal conversation at the beginning and at the end of the meeting. There is a relaxed attitude to interrupting people. The Saudis are not particularly good timekeepers, though they may expect you to be.

As with elsewhere, networking is an integral part of Saudi  business culture. There are numerous business groups and professional associations in Saudi Arabia. For more see Business Groups, Associations and Networking. Note further that nepotism is not frowned upon but considered a good thing in the Kingdom.

Labour Market

The Saudi Arabian economy is in good shape at present. GDP growth is has been around a steady 4% in the last year or so. Reflecting this, the labour market is buoyant and jobs are readily available in several sectors.

Most jobs are directly or indirectly related to the oil and gas industries. Related job sectors include engineering, construction, IT and telecommunications. Other areas of work include transport, infrastructure and food processing. Management and technological roles are likely to remain abundant for many years to come. Teaching English is another possibility, as English is the lingua franca between Saudis and non-Arabic speaking expats.

The total work force is about 11 million, and there are approximately 650,000 people out of work, making an unemployment rate of 5.7%, which is considerably lower than the world average. However, the rate of youth unemployment is at an alarming 29%. This is largely to do with the demographics of the country: there is a very high proportion of young people and not many jobs for locals.

To ameliorate this, the government has implemented a form of protectionism known as ‘Saudisation’, which puts Saudi citizens first. This puts some restrictions on immigrants gaining permission to work and imposes quotas on businesses. Companies who do not meet the quorum of native Saudi employees run the risk of heavy fines. The quorum can be up to 30%, depending on the size and nature of the business.

Nearly all the jobs available are temporary. A fair few of them are either contract or freelance. Usually workers are contracted for the length of a project or for a fixed period, which is normally for one year but may be for two or three. After this time, it may be possible to find work on another project. Networking can help a great deal with this, and living surrounded by other expats can also be helpful.




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