Saudi Arabia is considered a conservative country by Western standards and it’s true that Saudis are a community proud of the local culture and traditions. International tourists that come from non-Muslim countries may worry about following the Saudi etiquette during their time in the Kingdom.
However, rules are not as strict as some travelers think. The country is increasingly opening itself up to both foreign tourism and business. Besides launching a quick and easy online visa application for the first time in history, the government has also dropped and/ or relaxed regulations, granting more freedom in matters such as dress code and hotel bookings.
Therefore, visiting the Kingdom as a foreigner is becoming easier and easier. As long as one shows respect for the local way of life and follows some simple rules, they will find that Saudis are actually welcoming people excited about showing their country to foreigners.
Those who are considering traveling to Saudi Arabia may find this guide to Saudi etiquette useful for their trip.
How Do You Greet Someone in Saudi Arabia?
Greetings are important in Saudi culture as they’re a way to show respect to both friends and people you meet for the first time. The most common greeting is pronounced Salaam Alaykum and means ‘may peace be upon you’. The usual reply is Wa Alaykum Salam (‘and upon you’).
You may see greetings being accompanied by physical contact like a strong handshake or, in case of more intimate acquaintances, a hug and/ or kisses on alternate cheeks. Try to follow the lead of the person you’re meeting.
However, remember that physical contact between men and women is kept to a minimum and avoided altogether when meeting someone you’re not intimate with (even in a business environment, handshakes are avoided in this case).
What Should I Avoid in Saudi Arabia?
As it’s normal when traveling abroad, tourists and foreign businessmen and women may want to avoid offending locals inadvertently. Just the fact that visitors keep this in mind will be appreciated by Saudis, who are understanding of a faux pas coming from a well-meaning tourist.
The following is a list of behaviors to avoid while in Saudi Arabia to ensure a smooth trip:
Public displays of affection
This goes for all genders and couples — from married parents to teenagers, from heterosexuals to LGBTQ+ partners.
Behavior that may be considered innocent in other countries (such as holding hands) will also be frowned upon.
Ignoring sections at the restaurant
In Saudi Arabia, you will notice that many establishments offer ‘sections’. There is usually one for families and another for bachelors so that they can eat separately. Single women often eat in the family section.
Foreigners are expected to respect this division.
Being seen intoxicated
Alcohol consumption is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. It is best to avoid being seen purchasing, selling, or consuming alcohol.
Laws will be even more strictly enforced if one is caught while intoxicated.
Inappropriate dress code at religious sites
The dress code in the Kingdom is conservative but not as limiting as one might think. For example, there is no need for foreign tourists to cover their head in public places.
However, things change when one enters a place of religious importance, like a mosque. Here, all women are expected to keep their hair covered and men should wear long trousers.
Proselytism in Saudi Arabia
It’s perfectly legal for both residents and foreigners to follow and practice a religion other than Islam in the Kingdom.
However, this should be kept private as practicing and promoting other religions in public is forbidden within the country.
Open and rude criticisms
In Saudi business culture, openly criticizing others’ ideas or saying ‘no’ directly is considered rude. Saudis prefer to politely suggest changes.
Criticizing the Royal family and the government is also not advisable and will not put you in a good light, especially with strangers.
Drinking and eating in public during Ramadan
Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for Muslims around the world. During this time, followers avoid drinking, eating, smoking, and other activities from dawn until sunset.
Although non-Muslims are not expected to fast and follow Ramadan, they should still respect this important tradition by not eating and drinking in front of fasting Muslims.
Eating with your left hand
Hospitality is a major part of Saudi culture. Visitors who get to meet locals are likely to receive an invitation for tea or a meal.
While arriving at someone’s house with a small gift will be well received, eating with the left hand is considered impolite and unclean.
Can I Take Pictures in Saudi Arabia?
Although some think that rules on photography are particularly harsh in Saudi Arabia, this is not the case. Just like everywhere else in the world, precaution should be exercised in case of:
- Government buildings. These should not be photographed unless the photographer holds official permission due to security concerns.
- People. It is a good custom to ask for permission before taking pictures of Saudi people you don’t know.
Is It Customary to Tip in Saudi Arabia?
Tipping is fairly common in Saudi Arabia. This is especially true at restaurants, where good service is usually rewarded with a 10% to 15% tip. Some establishments may add a service charge to the bill. In this case, tipping isn’t necessary.
Tourist guides will expect a tip. It is less common to tip hotel staff but in that case, $1 or $2 is considered acceptable.
How Strict Are Saudis with Etiquette?
Like in all countries, it’s true that following the local rules and customs is advantageous for foreigners. However, if you don’t break the law, there is no need to overly worry about the occasional cultural gaffe.
Saudis are welcoming people who appreciate the efforts made by culturally-conscious visitors. Moreover, the country is changing dramatically when it comes to rules and etiquette.
It is now possible for foreigners to visit the Kingdom simply for tourism (and not only business or religious purposes). Saudi and foreign women are allowed to drive and single female travelers can book accommodation on their own. The same more relaxed attitude is being extended to other regulations and practices too.